Editorial: Jonathan Pollard, bargaining chip?

Some 1,000 demonstrators in Jerusalem call for the release of the Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.
(Abir Sultan / EPA)

The latest round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is in deep trouble. But the Obama administration shouldn’t try to salvage the talks by releasing Jonathan Pollard, the former naval intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.

Pollard, 59, pleaded guilty to providing Israel with satellite photos and data on Soviet weapons and ship movements in the 1980s. Under federal sentencing rules, he will be eligible for parole in November 2015. Pollard may well have a case for clemency before then, based on good behavior and the argument long pressed by his supporters that his punishment was disproportionate compared to that meted out to other convicted spies. But successive presidents have been right to resist linking his release to diplomatic efforts to bring about an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

It’s understandable that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and President Obama are frustrated. Originally Kerry had hoped for a “final status” agreement this spring; that was scaled back to merely a “framework” agreement by April 29. Even that more modest plan has been undermined in recent days by both sides. First, Israel reneged on a promise to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by the end of March. Then Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas angered Israel by filing applications for Palestinian membership in 15 international agencies.


Kerry reportedly has been exploring a deal to revive the talks that would include Pollard’s release before Passover, the release of additional Palestinian prisoners and a new commitment by Israel to exercise “restraint” in the expansion of West Bank settlements. Kerry should keep trying to reinvigorate the talks, but clemency for Pollard should be taken off the table.

For one thing, Obama would be setting an unseemly precedent by using his clemency powers to oblige a foreign country that enlisted a U.S. citizen to betray his country. Whether Pollard should be released from prison should remain a domestic matter.

For another, Pollard’s release is unlikely to be pivotal. Israeli leaders may earnestly desire it, but it’s doubtful that it would induce them to alter their substantive positions, such as their insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a gesture Palestinians fear would lock in second-class status for its Muslim and Christian inhabitants. If and when negotiations reach a decisive point, Israel will decide the terms are in its interest or it won’t. Whether Pollard is a free man will be secondary.