By Elena Schneider - 08/15/11 12:39 PM EDT
Jewish supporters of President Obama are ramping up their lobbying campaign to release Jonathan Pollard, claiming the move would go a long way in easing tensions between the Jewish community and the White House.
“There are enough Jews who voted for Obama in 2008 who have questions and are moving away from him,” a senior member of Pollard’s campaign said. “By freeing Pollard, it would put people back in Obama’s camp.”
Pollard, a former Navy intelligence officer, was given a life sentence for spying for Israel in 1987, and has served more than 25 years in prison, seven in solitary confinement.
Supporters of the effort have taken out recent advertisements in Capitol Hill newspapers, including The Hill, to make their case. The ads list more than two dozen lawmakers and other policymakers who endorse a pardon, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Allen West (R-Fla.) and Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.).
Obama’s relationship with some Jewish Americans suffered a blow when he called for a return to the 1967 borders as a starting point for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“The initial focus on settlements ... gave the impression that Israel was the obstacle to peace,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division. “But we must acknowledge that the military support between the U.S. and Israel is at an all-time high.”
Since his speech in May, Obama has sought to reassure Jewish voters.
Earlier this month, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called for Pollard’s release during a speech on the House floor, adding it would bolster U.S. relations with Israel.
Frank said, “I believe that there is a personal argument for the clemency, and there is also the fact that American-Israeli relations are always important, and are particularly important now. We are asking the Israelis to take some steps toward a negotiated peace that may or may not be possible for them to take. Knowing that America recognizes the strength of that friendship is a very important factor in our persuading them of that."
In 2008, Jewish voters strongly supported Obama, with exit polls showing 78 percent of Jewish Americans voted for the president, while 21 percent voted McCain.
“If you look at election history, Democrats can usually count on 70 percent or more [of the Jewish vote],” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “But there are now questions being raised about that relationship.”
Not only is Obama potentially strained for Jewish votes, he could be strained for their donations, a senior member of Pollard’s campaign said.
“There are people who have withheld giving money ... who are holding back,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “It should be a no-brainer ... it will get [Obama] brownie points. The hope is that he’ll do it for justice.”
Pollard activists are divided on how direct an effect a release would have on Obama’s relationship with Jewish voters.
“It’s not going to win the day, but it’s not going to hurt him,” Potasnik said.
Seymour Reich, a New York lawyer who visited Pollard with writer Elie Wiesel in 1991, said Obama’s relationship with Jewish voters is “tense,” but the majority will still likely vote for his reelection.
“The bottom line is that many [Jewish voters] will still vote for Obama in 2012,” Reich said.
Recently, Pollard underwent a second emergency surgery on his kidneys.
“Enough is enough,” is Rabbi Pesach Lerner’s constant refrain.
“If you ask Jonathan, ‘Are you guilty?’ he says, ‘I’m guilty,’ ” Lerner, the executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, said. “He’s admitted to his crime. He is remorseful and apologized for it ... but he was not given a fair punishment. A fair punishment is not solitary confinement for seven years ... and it’s not 26 years of prison time.”
Opposition to a pardon for Pollard comes from the intelligence community. According to reports, the CIA has consistently resisted his release.
In 1998, George Tenet, then the CIA director, threatened to resign if then-President Clinton agreed to release Pollard.
“Initially, no one knew what [intelligence Pollard] gave to the Israelis since, at first, Israel didn’t cooperate,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan. “They were concerned that some [of the intelligence] may have ended up in the Soviet Union.”
On the CIA’s website, one of the recommended books is Ronald Olive’s Capturing Jonathan Pollard: How One of the Most Notorious Spies in American History Was Brought to Justice.
In recent years, some high-profile names have joined the chorus to release Pollard for humanitarian reasons, including Henry Kissinger and former CIA Director James Woolsey.
In January, George Shultz, a former secretary of State who served in the Reagan administration, sent a letter to Obama that called for clemency for Pollard.
Shultz wrote, “Pollard has now paid a huge price for his espionage.”
There was much speculation in late 2007 and early 2008 that President George W. Bush would release Pollard during his last days in office, but he opted not to.
Obama has granted 17 pardons and zero commutations, according to the Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney.