Pollard case unnecessarily strains Israeli, U.S. relations

It was 10 years ago today — Nov. 20, 1985 — that Jonathan Pollard sought asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and was turned away. He has not been a free man since.

Pollard was charged with passing classified information to Israel. The trial court, ignoring a plea agreement and accepting the prosecution's argument that this was "one of the worst cases of espionage in U.S. history," sentenced him to life in prison with a recommendation against parole.

During the last decade, while Pollard has languished in one federal prison after another, the following events have occurred:

*The Soviet Union (which the American intelligence community inaccurately suggested was a beneficiary of Pollard's largesse) disintegrated.

*Iraq (whose missile-delivery and chemical-warfare systems Pollard had described to Israel 10 years earlier) fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv.

*Caspar Weinberger (the former Secretary of Defense who said Pollard should be shot for his crime) was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Iran-Contra affair and later pardoned by President Bush.

*Master traitor Aldrich Ames (who for years had concealed his perfidy by putting the blame on Pollard) was unmasked as perpetrator of the biggest intelligence breach in U.S. history, responsible for the deaths of at least a dozen American agents abroad.

Since then the CIA has been exposed for grossly mishandling the Ames case and — much worse still — of feeding false information to the executive branch. This is the same discredited bureaucracy that urged President Clinton not to commute Pollard's sentence because of "the enormity" of his crime, even though he was never charged with nor convicted of espionage.

Toss aside all of the past arguments in favor of Pollard's release. No longer is it necessary to be outraged by the government's flagrant violation of its own plea agreement ("a fundamental miscarriage of justice," wrote one widely respected appellate judge); the gross inequity of the sentence (Pollard has already served longer than anyone else convicted of the same offense, more than twice the average sentence); or the blatant misinformation about damage done (the government has yet to produce a shred of hard evidence that the country was damaged in any way).

Toss aside all of these cogent contentions. Pollard deserves clemency not only on humanitarian grounds to right a miscarriage of justice, but because of the uniquely incontrovertible circumstances of his case — not the least of which is our special relationship with the country to which he passed classified information.

Israel, which should have granted him safe haven a decade ago, now knows the score on Pollard. The Israeli public has long since regarded him as wrongfully betrayed; the Knesset has publicly called for commutation of his sentence; so have prime ministers from both major political parties in that small democracy's perpetually fractionalized government, Likud's Yitzhak Shamir and Labor's late Yitzhak Rabin.

In fact, this was one of Rabin's last acts. The day before he was gunned down by an assassin, the Israeli leader hand-wrote a letter to Clinton asking the president — as a gesture of support for the U.S.-brokered peace process — to grant Pollard clemency.

In virtually every way this case is a tragic anomaly: an unnecessary strain on the unique relationship between two friendly nations, and a lingering embarrassment to our abiding sense of fair play.

It will not go away until justice is done — until Jonathan Pollard, punished enough by America, is finally allowed to be taken in by Israel.