This Friday the Obama administration will release Jonathan Pollard after 30 years of imprisonment for selling large volumes of highly classified U.S. intelligence to Israel.
Between 1984 and 1985, the Navy intelligence specialist-turned-spy collected a salary from America’s ally for his illegal services. Israel granted him citizenship in 1987 and finally recognized him as an agent in 1998, after failing to persuade the United States to commute his sentence. This week Pollard said he would be willing to renounce his U.S. citizenship in exchange for immediate extradition to Israel rather than living in his home country for five years, as his parole conditions require.
Now international focus on Pollard’s endgame threatens to erase from memory certain politically charged nuances of his imprisonment and release—most recently the Obama administration’s apparent attempt to spend Pollard as legal tender in Israel as compensation for the bad Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposes and only 21 percent of Americans approve.
Jonathan Pollard’s Political Utility
In July 2015, the United States unofficially settled the infamous deal that lifts hundreds of millions of dollars in sanctions against Iran in exchange for delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. The deal rests heavily on a presumption of Iran’s honesty.
More aware than President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that no honor exists among thieves, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vocally opposed the deal to the administration, Congress, and the American press. Meanwhile, the deal provoked a constitutional crisis.
The executive agreement, despite walking and talking like a treaty subject to Senate ratification, ordinarily would have bypassed the legislative check altogether. Instead, well-meaning but poorly guided Republicans finagled congressional influence over the deal. That influence proved illusory, and ultimately took the form of tacit approval from an impotent Congress, as we said it would.
In the background lay Pollard, twiddling his thumbs in a prison cell as he had for the last 29.75 years. Periodically over three decades, the United States dangled him in front of Israel as a bargaining chip. Netanyahu reaffirmed his value by making Pollard’s release a campaign pledge in 2007.
The Leak of the Red Herring
After giving the fig to Israel, Congress, and the American people by splicing hands with Iran on July 14, the Obama administration appeared to grow suddenly sensitive to having brazenly undermined our Middle Eastern ally. So on Friday, July 25, the administration leaked to the Wall Street Journal that it was “preparing to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from prison, according to U.S. officials, some of whom hope the move will smooth relations with Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.”
Even those who thought Pollard’s sentence too severe recognized the leak as evidence that “there is no stunt too cheap or statement so cynical that the White House won’t employ in order to advance its agenda.” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin wrote:
the attempt to inject this emotion issue [sic] into the already inflamed debate about Iran was a deeply cynical ploy that was clearly aimed at defusing anger about the administration’s efforts to defend a nuclear agreement by isolating Israel and its defenders. Whatever one may think of the merits of the case for clemency for Pollard — and at this point it is a strong one — this issue has no place in the discussion about Iran and should be dismissed out of hand….
Even Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who rushed to dismiss the revelation as mere anticipation of Pollard’s November parole hearing, either missed the play or rightly deemed Pollard irrelevant to the Iran deal’s bearing on U.S.-Israeli relations. That Pollard’s 1985 sentence had a 30-year “mandatory parole” clause, and that the U.S. Parole Commission preliminarily voted to release him on July 7, does not change that the Obama team hoped to use Pollard’s release to distract Israel from national security realities in its backyard, and told WSJ as much.
Spy Pollard Walks, Pastor Abedini Rots
Consider the irony of the Obama team’s eagerness to leverage Pollard’s release to help “smooth relations” with Israel about the Iran deal after refusing to make American citizen and Iranian captive Saeed Abedini part of the same deal, lest it rankle Iran.
When announcing the deal on July 14, Secretary of State Kerry assured the American people that the “detained U.S. citizens … remained in our thoughts throughout this negotiation,” despite having been excluded from it. The next day, President Obama explained why the two issues “are not connected,” and also why CBS News anchor Major Garrett was stupid for suggesting that they might be.
So Pollard was relevant to making the Iran deal palatable for Israelis. But neither Abedini nor his three fellow American captives were relevant to making the deal palatable for Americans.
The Principle Guiding the Obama Pecking Order
Trying to locate decision-making principles in an administration as pathologically dishonest as Obama’s may be a fool’s errand. But one can try. Abedini’s captivity, the Pollard case, and the 2014 swap of five Taliban terrorists for the dishonorable Bowe Bergdahl suggest that one clout-wielding litmus test in the White House is not “Whose release protects Americans?” but “Which country haven’t we appeased lately?”
That this president would care to appease Israel may confuse those who remember that one Obama official nicknamed Netanyahu “chickens—it.” More confusing is that the president did not care to appease the 45 percent of Americans who were cool to the Iran deal in July, versus only 33 percent who favored it and 22 percent who didn’t know. (As of September, 49 percent opposed it, 21 favored it, and 30 percent didn’t know.)
Among the unappeased Americans: the United States House and Senate, which have formally and informally been calling for Abedini’s release for years, yet have been denied meaningful presidential or State Department engagement. Evidently these Americans rank lower in the Obama pecking order than chickens–t.
Whatever guiderails steer Obama’s foreign and defense policy, they appear fluid—less like principles, more like forced air ventilation in an international dorm. What matters isn’t which allies or adversaries occupy the rooms, or how comfortable they are per se, only that no one gets too comfy relative to anyone else.
The Iran deal blasted A/C for an uncomfortable Iran. Pollard opened a vent for more comfortable Israel. The United States has long been unfairly comfy, so Obama runs around the room closing every vent he can find—even Saeed Abedini’s.