Beyond the Case of Jonathan Pollard

by James A. Russell

News that the Obama administration is considering releasing the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as part of an attempt to breath life into the Israel-Palestine peace talks is a sign of negotiations that have become a road to nowhere.

Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration deserve credit for attempting to convince both parties to take steps that serve their interests: to reach peaceful accommodation for an independent Palestinian state. The negotiations, however, recall an essential time honored truth of life and politics: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

The Obama administration may wish to release Pollard, but it should be under no illusions that his release will somehow increase Israel’s enthusiasm for peace talks with the Palestinians. Israel would enthusiastically welcome Pollard as a national hero, and then go back to its US-subsidized good life behind its walls that protect the beautiful beaches and café’s of Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

As the occupying military power, the Israelis hold most of the cards in the asymmetric bargaining framework. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu, the Israelis continually demonstrate their abiding disinterest in living peacefully with the Palestinians despite the obvious benefits that a settlement would offer.

The view from Israel

Israel regards its strategic problems in purely military terms and sees no benefits to a different set of political relationships that might make its neighbors less hostile. A deal with the Palestinians might unlock the door to these possibilities, but Israel would have to decide to insert the key into the lock to find out what’s on the other side. One can only conclude that Israel has no interest in altering political relations with its neighbors and creating a more cooperative regional political framework.  Life is good on their Mediterranean beaches.

Ignoring the requests of their benefactor and most important political supporter, Israel continues to build new settlements in illegally occupied lands and continues to squeeze the Palestinian population on the West Bank into constricted cantonment areas surrounded by troops and roadblocks that make the concept of an independent state simply impossible.

Some reports suggest that Israel is even insisting on what would amount to a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan River valley as part of a settlement. What country in the modern world could agree to such a situation and still be regarded as a country?

For their part, the Palestinians have little leverage in the negotiations since they are under military occupation and are being actively denied the ability to function as a coherent state. They have already acceded to Israeli demands to set up their own security force, but are left without the accompanying political institutions to provide governance and public services. So the Palestinians are left in a perennial catch-22 situation in which the Israelis demand that they act like a state while Israel simultaneously denies them the ability to function as one.

This returns us to the issue of the Jonathan Pollard. Americans forget that the Israelis rented out an apartment on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC filled with copying machines to deal with the volume of top secret classified material that Pollard passed to his Israeli handlers. Israel allegedly passed some of that information to the Soviet Union in exchange for an increase in the numbers of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate to Israel.  Pollard is said to have provided thousands of sensitive classified documents to Israel that were never returned to the United States. The Reagan-era Cold Warrior Caspar Weinberger would no doubt turn over in his grave if he knew what was afoot with Pollard today.

Cold War remnants

In some ways, the focus on Pollard is emblematic of an issue and an epoch in US international relations that has disappeared into the rearview mirror — at least for the United States. Today, the United States talks of the pivot to Asia and is left with a series of politico-military relationships throughout the Middle East formed during the heat of the Cold War that have lost much of their strategic impetus. Israel is no exception to this phenomenon.

The main US Cold War allies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel — all joined by a congruence of interests — are slowly but surely becoming unglued in the 21st century as the winds of change blow across the region. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are now the forces of counter-revolution simultaneously seeking to preserve monarchy, a military dictatorship, and a permanent occupation — all of which places these countries on the wrong side of history.

For the United States, these relationships made sense in the Cold War as it sought to hold the line against Soviet influence and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, as it helped build the epicenter of the global oil industry that exists to this day in the Persian Gulf.

The US-Israeli relationship was cemented in this period, and Israel today stands as the unrivaled regional military superpower courtesy of the United States.  The US-Saudi relationship was similarly constructed, with the United States helping the House of Saud construct a security apparatus second to none in the region.  The story of the US-Egyptian relationship is similar — with the Egyptian security apparatus built and funded with US money and military equipment.

New interests

At one time, the Arab-Israeli dispute was seen as a lynchpin to regional stability and critical to US interests. Today, however, that calculus has changed. The conflict has devolved into a persistent irritant for the United States but has lost its importance in the global scheme of things as a strategic imperative.

Today, the stakes in the Iran nuclear program are far more significant for American interests and are justifiably receiving the attention of senior decision-makers in the Obama administration. Moreover, the US ability to influence the direction of the region’s political evolution in places like Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt are limited. The United States cannot manage these regional problems all by itself.  Similarly, it cannot manage the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, particularly when America’s main ally actively refuses to take steps for peace that are in its own interests. If Israel wants to live in a permanent state of hostility with its neighbors, then so be it.

Secretary of State John Kerry is actively seeking solutions to the many problems facing the United States around the world. The Arab-Israeli dispute keeps getting lower on America’s list of global and strategic priorities; it has turned into a road to nowhere. Keep Pollard in jail or give him up, but, more importantly, the United States must move on from the Cold War era and leave these antagonists to their own devices and fate.

Photo: Israelis protest for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. For the President to so demean the negotiations or the seriousness of Pollard’s crimes, which not only involved what may have been the worst spy disclosure of sensitive information to our enemy in our nation’s history, but also the sale of that information by Pollard to Israel for money, and then its reported sale and/or dissemination by Israel to the Soviet Union. Some may argue that could enable the Administration to grant ‘amnesty’ to Snowden, but this is a false equivalent, since Snowden’s disclosures were of governmental crimes and other wrongdoing against the American people and innocent peoples elsewhere in the world, and formal amnesty for him should not necessary where he committed no crime.

    If the President and his Secretary of State try to jump start the negotiations with this, they should be severely castigated, not only for ignoring the seriousness of Pollard’s crimes, but also because they lack the guts to force the Israelis to comply with international law, and are so willing to throw this one away for some speculative temporary advantage. They have lost face so often with Netanyahu in the past, whether with expanded settlements, targeted assassinations or indefinite detention and lack of equal justice for non-Jewish Israeli citizens or residents – Bibi is after all the real existential threat who should have been targeted and thrown off the cliff a long time ago- that any ‘speculative temporary advantage’ would be no advantage at all.

    Obviously, Obama and Kerry are not the only ones who should be held accountable on this. Congress has been intransigent on the Pollard issue and seriously biased in favor of even the worst of Israel’s demands, but the President is our Chief Executive and must lead and follow through with good judgment.

  2. If we are a mediator providing our impartial good offices and not actually a formal party to the negotiations, we shouldn’t be offering to sweeten the incentives ourselves. We shouldn’t be reduced to having to pay anything to either party to induce it to sign on the dotted line.

    On the other hand, if we were to attempt to do such a thing, it certainly should not be delivered until the final multi-lateral agreement has been executed and is being implemented.

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