JERUSALEM - Former President Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich has embittered the wife and supporters of Jonathan Pollard, charging that support for Rich from top Israeli officials and prominent American Jews came at the expense of a pardon for the imprisoned spy who worked for Israel.
"A very clear message was sent about which [case] was going to make a difference to the government of Israel and the American Jewish establishment," said Pollard's wife, Esther, in an interview from Toronto.
In the weeks leading up to the Rich pardon, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres weighed in with Clinton on Rich's behalf. Recommendations for a pardon also came from a former chief of the Mossad spy agency, Shabtai Shavit, and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
Clinton told a television call-in show Thursday that "Israel did influence me profoundly" in deciding to grant the pardon. A congressional panel and the U.S. Justice Department are also looking into whether Clinton was influenced by a large donation from Rich's former wife to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign and a pledge by her to give $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library.
Information released by a congressional committee shows that Rich's associates also cast a wide net for help from American Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and Marlene E. Post, chairwoman of Birthright Israel, which subsidizes mass trips to Israeli for American Jewish college students.
Pollard was frequently mentioned as one of those whom Clinton might pardon in one of his final acts before leaving office Jan. 20, although U.S. national security agencies have consistently opposed freeing him.
A former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in March 1987 for selling secrets to Israel in a case that caused major strains between the United States and the Jewish state.
Although the full extent of the security damage he caused has never been disclosed, U.S. officials reportedly believe he gave Israel, among other things, a manual used by U.S. intelligence to intercept other countries' communications, help in identifying CIA sources within the Palestine Liberation Organization and locations of U.S. warships.
Pollard's wife and supporters say he gave Israel information essential to its security about Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction.
Successive Israeli prime ministers have pressed American presidents to release Pollard, although it wasn't until 1998 that Israel officially admitted that he was an Israeli agent and not part of a rogue operation. Pollard had to fight in court to gain Israeli citizenship.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on Pollard's release in late 1998 almost caused the collapse of negotiations between Israel and the PLO at Wye River, Md.
An official in Ehud Barak's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the prime minister "has repeatedly raised the issue [of Pollard] with the president."
"This was true from the beginning of Ehud Barak's tenure until the very end of Clinton's tenure," the official said. He denied that Barak's support for Pollard had in any way weakened because of the campaign for Rich. "The issue of Marc Rich came up once at the end of a phone call between Barak and President Clinton."
No evidence has emerged that Clinton deliberately rejected a pardon for Pollard in favor of Rich, but to some Pollard supporters, the connection between the two high-profile Israeli cases is clear.
"It was obvious that there would be one of two," says Jonathan Rosenblum, a Jerusalem Post columnist who has written in support of Pollard.
Rich has donated tens of millions of dollars to Israeli institutions, according to several press reports. Avner Azulay, a former Mossad operative who runs the Rich Foundation in Tel Aviv, told the Associated Press that over the past 20 years, the financier has given $70 million to $80 million to hospitals, museums, symphonies and for the absorption of immigrants.
Rich, who has business ties in the Arab world and beyond, also helped get Jews out of Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, according to Shavit, the former Mossad chief.
"People who were so active in pressing for Mark Rich's release didn't play the same role in pressing for Pollard's release," said Aaron Lerner, a longtime Pollard supporter who runs Independent Media Review and Analysis, a political analysis and news compilation service.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a Reform organization, wrote in an op-ed article appearing in Jewish newspapers recently that support for Rich was "bought" and that the Jewish community failed an "important moral test."
The Justice for Jonathan Pollard Web site features a cartoon in which one of the characters says Pollard's supporters were naive. "Instead of raising the issues, they should have been making donations."
"If in 16 years the government of Israel failed to make clear to the United States that release of their agent is of paramount importance, and in 16 days can make clear that a fugitive is above the law, what is going on here?" asks Esther Pollard, a Canadian-born schoolteacher who now holds Israeli citizenship.
Pollard, 46, incarcerated at a federal prison in North Carolina, suffers from a badly weakened immune system as a result of harsh prison treatment and lengthy solitary confinement, as well as arthritis and a glaucoma-like condition, she said. During a recent visit she found him bent over in pain from a gall-bladder attack.
Pollard has written to Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, hoping that a new government in Israel and new administration in Washington will end his ordeal.