Romney, Pollard and Israel: The Next Big Gaffe?

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The Nation

Romney, Pollard and Israel: The Next Big Gaffe?

If Mitt Romney wants to utterly bungle his visit to Israel, and he might, he ought to call for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Pro-Israel types, wheeling out John McCain on their side, are already pressuring Romney to do so. And Romney, a relative ignoramus on foreign policy matters, might actually be thinking of playing the “Pollard card.” Reports the Jerusalem Post:

In his only public comments about Pollard so far, Romney told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in December that he was “open to examining” the case. While one Jewish leader said afterward that he was confident that Romney would see the justice in Pollard’s case once he studied it, another Jewish leader present at the meeting said he was disappointed Romney did not call for Pollard’s release.

If he does, most of the U.S. national security community will come down on Romney like, well, a ton of halvah.

I’m not sure there’s any partisan bias to this story from the Associated Press, coming on the eve of Mitt Romney’s arrival in Israel, but it’s certainly curious, nonetheless. It’s not a leak, exactly, and it’s completely unsourced, citing only anonymous “official,” presumably from the CIA:

WASHINGTON (AP)—As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other U.S. politicians heap praise on Israel, officials say there's another side to America's close relationship with the Israelis.

They say the CIA considers the Israelis its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency's Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East.

CIA officers stationed in Israel report break-ins at their homes and the tampering of sensitive communication equipment. Officials say working in Israel is like operating in Moscow.

Such meddling underscores what's widely known but rarely discussed outside intelligence circles: Despite strong ties between the countries, officials see Israel as a frustrating ally at best and, at times, an adversary looking to steal secrets.

Romney meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday in Jerusalem.

Of course, I’ve heard the same thing myself from CIA folks, who often don’t think of Israel as a “friendly” nation—or, if they do, one that bears constant watching.

Romney, whose visit to London was a disaster, ought to stay away from the always-controversial case of Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy serving a life term in the United States for spying.

But there’s already pressure building on Romney to support Pollard’s release.

And one Israeli analyst, writing in the Forward, cites the constant opposition from U.S defense and intelligence agencies who want Pollard to stay in jail:

Why are efforts to obtain clemency for Jonathan Pollard stuck? The man convicted in 1987 for spying for Israel and given a life sentence remains in jail despite a growing chorus calling for his release.

I had the opportunity to ask a number of American Jewish leaders attending a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem this February. Their answers, prefaced with “Please don’t quote me,” offer an insight into one of the most agonizing and perhaps divisive issues within the American Jewish community, and between Americans and Israelis.

Most referred to opposition by United States defense and intelligence agencies, which have repeatedly scuttled all attempts to work out a deal for Pollard’s release. The problem is that no one really knows whether these agencies hold convincing proof that Pollard damaged American security—and that he’d potentially be a danger if released.

A recent AP story provides a very good summary of the Pollard case, and, in addition, a lot of background on the tangled conflicts between the CIA and the Mossad over the years:

WASHINGTON (AP)—The CIA station chief opened the locked box containing the sensitive equipment he used from his home in Tel Aviv, Israel, to communicate with CIA headquarters in Virginia, only to find that someone had tampered with it. He sent word to his superiors about the break-in.

The incident, described by three former senior U.S. intelligence officials, might have been dismissed as just another cloak-and-dagger incident in the world of international espionage, except that the same thing had happened to the previous station chief in Israel.

It was a not-so-subtle reminder that, even in a country friendly to the United States, the CIA was itself being watched.

In a separate episode, according to another two former U.S. officials, a CIA officer in Israel came home to find the food in the refrigerator had been rearranged. In all the cases, the U.S. government believes Israel's security services were responsible.

Go for it, Mitt!

Bob Dreyfuss

Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist in Alexandria, Virginia, specializing in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam and is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones.

 

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