Former American intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, who has been serving a life sentence in the United States since 1987 when he was convicted of selling classified information to Israel, is set to be released on Nov. 20, according to his lawyers—a move U.S. officials will deny has anything to do with tensions over the recently negotiated Iran nuclear deal, though that’s hard to buy. His lawyers are also reportedly pushing President Obama to grant him clemency so he can leave the country—presumably for Israel.
Israel has long pressed for Pollard’s release, and it has been floated as a bargaining chip frequently over the years, whenever the U.S. wants a concession from the Israeli government. Pollard’s release was reportedly part of a package proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry last year in an unsuccessful attempt to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. U.S. intelligence leaders have long balked at the idea of releasing Pollard—then-CIA Director George Tenet threatened to quit when Bill Clinton considered it in 1998.
When the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Obama administration was preparing to release Pollard, it looked like another trial balloon. Officials denied that there was any link between Pollard’s case and the Iran deal. It’s true that Pollard was eligible for parole in November, so his release doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere—but still, it would be a remarkable coincidence if the U.S. finally agreed to a longtime Israeli demand at a time when relations between the two allies are at a nadir and Israel is lobbying for Congress to reject Obama’s Iran deal.
Still, if this is an olive branch to Israel, it’s unlikely to be a very effective one. Much as he may want Pollard released, Benjamin Netanyahu seems unlikely to soften his position on a deal he views—or says he views—as an existential threat to Israel. As for Republicans in Congress, while they may support Pollard’s release, Lindsey Graham likely spoke for most of his colleagues when he characterized the Pollard release as “a pathetic attempt by a weak administration to curry favor with our Israeli allies who across the board reject this dangerous deal with Iran.”
The New York Times speculates the intended audience may actually be Jewish Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer, who have long pushed for Pollard’s release and are on the fence about the Iran deal, though this doesn’t seem like much of a prize given that there aren’t enough no votes on the deal to overturn Obama’s veto anyway.
The last time Pollard came up in the news, I wrote that after nearly 30 years in prison, his release would be a reasonable price to pay for a significant diplomatic breakthrough, whether on a West Bank deal or another issue. But if the Obama administration really did push for Pollard’s release to assuage Israel, this doesn’t seem like it meets that standard. It is, however, more evidence that Netanyahu will likely be able to turn the Iran defeat in his favor.