Pollard demand adds last-minute Middle East drama But accord is rescued when Clinton, Netanyahu agree on compromise

October 24, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- As deer galloped across a field and the rising sun glittered off the river, the engine was already humming on President Clinton's helicopter, ready to rush him back to the White House to declare the victory he had achieved at the secluded conference center here.

Aides to the battle-worn arbiter in the Middle East peace negotiations had told reporters that the president would soon announce in Washington a breakthrough deal. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's motorcade was already leaving the grounds of the Eastern Shore facility.

But suddenly, the chopper engine was shut down. For the next six hours, so was the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had used his last few moments with Clinton to demand that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard be released and allowed to accompany him back to Israel.

Clinton, who has repeatedly refused to grant Pollard any form of early release from his life sentence, found Netanyahu's demand too much to ask. So, after 22 sleepless hours shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian camps to broker the bargain, a determined president summoned negotiators back to the table once more.

"We have hit a snag in the agreement," Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary, plaintively told reporters at about 9: 30 a.m. yesterday, more than two hours after he had announced triumphantly that an agreement had been brokered. "We're working hard to work through the issues and put the deal back together."

While Israelis maintain that discussions over Pollard's release were raised earlier in the talks, the issue created a sudden and palpable sense of panic at the Wye Plantation conference center, where the talks have been held.

The Pollard dispute also offered a glimpse into the precarious nature of the summit, with a seemingly tangential issue threatening to quash Clinton's hopes for a diplomatic victory, as well as hopes for long-sought peace in the Middle East.

In an accord-saving compromise reached later yesterday, Clinton agreed to review the Pollard case again, and Netanyahu retreated on his demand for Pollard's immediate release.

The issue is not new to U.S.-Israeli relations. Calls for Pollard's release have been made many times since his conviction in 1987. They were denied by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, as well as by Clinton as recently as Oct. 1.

Pollard, a Navy intelligence analyst who worked in Suitland, Md., was accused in 1985 of turning over classified documents to Israeli agents. He pleaded guilty to espionage, receiving a life sentence. Pentagon officials said he used his position to gather information from the National Security Agency. Pollard also allowed the Israelis to copy his identification credentials.

He received tens of thousands of dollars for his services, which included passing on computer printouts, satellite photos and secret documents.

Many Israelis and some American supporters of Israel believe Pollard received an unfairly harsh sentence. Analysts said that TTC having gone out on a political limb to sign this peace agreement, Netanyahu needed a concession for his nationalist supporters.

But the U.S. intelligence community is said to be strongly opposed to the notion of clemency.

"It's a mistake," snapped retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, who was director of the NSA when Pollard was arrested.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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