Pollard the spy is no Zionist hero

Early this month, Israeli President Shimon Peres sent a personal missive to Barack Obama, asking for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. The very next day, Obama rejected the plea, practically by return mail.

Perhaps this was meant to make up for his reaction in January 2011, when Benjamin Netanyahu issued Israel's first formal appeal, and Obama never bothered issuing a response. Either way, his attitude, just like that of his predecessors, is perfectly clear.

So why have the Israelis wasted precious diplomatic capital on a sure loser? They are playing to the domestic audience. Support for Pollard is a vote-winner, particularly on the right, where he is perceived to be a Zionist martyr and victim of antisemitism.

This is a result of years of vigorous campaigning by Pollard's supporters. True Zionists, however, should recoil at the Pollard publicity machine, which makes a mockery of those who really were willing to sacrifice their lives and freedom for Israel, such as the Soviet prisoners or Israel's missing soldiers.

He didn’t care which country he sold US secrets to

Pollard was hardly an ideologue - at least not until he was caught and needed the support of America's Jews. He acted for money. His spying activities for Israel earned him tens of thousands of dollars and he expected to earn up to half-a-million.

Nor did he care to which country he sold America's secrets. The Americans allege that he attempted to pass documents to Pakistan, South Africa and Australia. Israel only became Pollard's main client because it alone would pay for his information.

So how was Pollard transformed into a Jewish hero? We are suckers for any narrative involving a Jewish convict for historical reasons. Historically, prisoners were often subject to mistreatment and injustice - according to Maimonides, they may be "hungry, thirsty, unclothed… in danger of their lives" - so Jewish law made it a special mitzvah to redeem them.

Somehow, this imperative, meant for kidnapped Jews in medieval times, has been transferred to a man convicted of actual crimes in a country ruled by law and order, the goldeneh medina no less.

It was easy once the convict professed to have acted altruistically for the greater good of the Jewish people, styling himself a victim rather than a greedy criminal. The fact is, none of us knows the full extent of the material Pollard betrayed, where it ended up or whether it cost any American lives. As such, we are all inherently unqualified to state - as so many do - that Pollard has served "too much time" or "does not deserve" the life sentence he was given.

For every expert arguing that Pollard has paid his dues, there is another arguing the opposite. In any case, this is a red herring, as the Pollard campaign was going strong before he had been in jail for a decade. For some people, apparently, any jail time was too much.

Ultimately, if the Americans decide to pardon Pollard, or release him on humanitarian grounds, that is their affair. It is the turning of him into a Zionist hero to which I object - as well as the price that Israel will be asked to pay for his freedom.

Make no mistake. If and when an American president does free Pollard, Israel will be asked to offer up some substantial sacrifice in return - perhaps another freeze of settlement-building or territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

These gestures have serious implications for Israel's future, and the country should only offer them in return for arrangements that increase its strategic advantage in the region or make a genuine difference to the peace process. They should not be bargained away in return for a James Bond wannabe who was willing to sell out to Pakistan.

Last updated: 11:12am, April 20 2012