The fate of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard could be turning into a partisan issue.
On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers, joined by Jewish communal leaders, held a Capitol Hill press conference presenting a letter to President Obama that called for Pollard’s release. The letter, signed by 39 House Democrats, argued that Pollard had received a disproportionate punishment for his actions and that after 25 years in prison, it is time to set him free.
“It is indisputable in our view that the nearly twenty-five years that Mr. Pollard has served stands as a sufficient time from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence,” the lawmakers stated. The letter stressed, however, that presidential clemency would not be interpreted as clearing Pollard from guilt.
But the letter was signed only by Democrats.
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who was among the authors of the letter, said in Thursday’s press conference that he had tried to get Republican members to sign on, but to no avail. According to a JTA report, Jewish officials confirmed that Frank attempted to reach out to Republicans on this issue. Pollard was convicted during the Reagan administration, and since then Israeli leaders have appealed to both Democratic and Republican presidents in requesting his release from prison. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost succeeded in convincing President Clinton to pardon Pollard as part of the 1998 Israeli-Palestinian Wye River memorandum. But last minute opposition from then-CIA Director George Tenet derailed the deal.
Still, outside Congress there are conservatives who are taking a stand on the issue. Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, issued his own letter to Obama on November 15, calling for the release of Pollard and stating that it would be “a matter of basic compassion and American justice.”
In Israel, the driving force behind calls for clemency for Pollard are lawmakers from the political right wing. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas party urged Netanyahu to deliver a letter on this issue to the White House during his latest visit to the U.S., but Netanyahu refused, saying he raises the issue routinely in his talks with American officials.
The new push for the release of Pollard also succeeded in creating an unusual coalition within the Jewish world. The list of groups backing the congressional letter to Obama included a broad spectrum ranging from the hawkish Zionist Organization of America to the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. It was also supported by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, which serves as an umbrella organization for 50 Jewish groups.