'Clinton Reneged on Promise to Free Israeli Spy'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNS) - Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will in a forthcoming book accuse President Clinton of reneging on an unambiguous promise late last year to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, in return for Israeli participation in Washington-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will claim that, when Clinton asked him at the White House in September to attend a session of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians in rural Maryland the following month, Netanyahu had agreed on one condition.

In order to placate his supporters' anger at the painful concessions he would be expected to make, Netanyahu told the president, he would need to be able to offer them something in return for their backing - Pollard's freedom.

Clinton had unmistakably agreed to the condition, a senior official in the outgoing government, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNSNews.com Thursday.

Freedom for Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst jailed for life in 1986 for passing military secrets to Israel, has long been a cause c\'e9l\'e8bre here, especially among right-wingers on whose support Netanyahu relied.

Clinton's undertaking had been confirmed several times during the week-long Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. talks at the Wye River Plantation, said the official, who was at Wye: "It was a firm commitment, reiterated repeatedly until Thursday [Oct. 22]."

But after an all-night session, early on Friday morning and just hours before a high-profile signing ceremony was to take place, "Clinton said he had to change his mind."

Netanyahu will apparently write that Clinton asked him to step aside, then broke the news. The prime minister then returned to the center of the room, and relayed the development to his ministers and advisors.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who had been party to the discussions relating to Pollard, had taken it particularly hard.

"He wanted to leave the conference," the source told CNSNews.com. "The day before, it was all settled, and now - this. Sharon felt it was a betrayal of trust and promises. He's no novice, but he was totally flabbergasted."

Both Sharon and Trade and Industry Minister Nathan Sharansky had wanted to postpone the signing ceremony until the matter was resolved. But so as not to be accused - both in Israel and internationally - of trying to scupper the whole deal, Netanyahu had gone ahead and signed the Wye Memorandum.

Asked what Netanyahu thought had prompted the turnaround, the official said Clinton was probably concerned about damaging the Democrats' chances in the imminent mid-term elections.

"I don't believe it was reflection. He probably tested the waters, and found objections. It's possible he might have called a few congressmen."

The Israeli source said Clinton may have been worried about conservative voters. "Even some of Israel's greatest friends are opposed to Pollard's release.

"He couldn't gain anything from freeing Pollard. There were no plusses in it. It was an easy choice."

Larry Schwartz, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, declined to comment Thursday, telling CNSNews.com the claims were "all speculative."

Media reports from the time show that, shortly before the Wye agreement was to be signed, a last-minute hitch was reported - Netanyahu was insisting Pollard's release be incorporated into the deal.

Some journalists and analysts spun the development as an attempt by the prime minister to pull a fast one on the president.

Administration officials asserted that the issue of Pollard had not even been discussed at Wye, and Clinton was quoted as denying that he had agreed to release the spy, but saying he would look further into the case.

Netanyahu himself expressed bitter disappointment, saying in an interview: "I was asked to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom committed security offences against the people of Israel ... I had hoped the United States would find a way - and I still do - that they would find mercy in their hearts after 13 years of solitary confinement to forgive, and let [Pollard] go to Israel."

The Wye Memorandum committed Israel to relinquishing more disputed territory to the Palestinians, in return for PA action on a range of security measures. The agreement eventually led to the collapse of Netanyahu's government, and the election which resulted in his defeat.

Pollard is serving his life term in Buttner, NC. He claims to be the only person in the history of the United States to be jailed for life for spying for an ally.

After years of equivocation, an Israeli government last year for the first time acknowledged that he was an Israeli agent, "handled by high-ranking Israeli officials in an Israeli-authorized bureau."

After Wye, Clinton promised to review the case and invited recommendations from security and intelligence heads. The general consensus was that Pollard should remain incarcerated, although Clinton's final decision has yet to be made public.

Asked what he thought would become of the Pollard case, the government official said Thursday Clinton was "obviously waiting until Barak has formed a government."

Clinton may hold out Pollard's future release as a "reward for good behavior" for Barak, he speculated.

Pollard himself has alleged that he has been blamed for damage incurred to America's security by other U.S. spies, including Aldrich Ames.

His supporters have argued that he gave Israel critical information - including intelligence on Iraqi intentions toward Israel - the U.S. should not have been withholding from a key ally in the first place.

During Clinton's visit to Israel last December, Netanyahu made the most direct appeal to date for Pollard, urging not that he be exonerated for doing "something bad and inexcusable," but that he be released on humanitarian grounds.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow