Among the Israelis eager to see the jailed American spy Jonathan Pollard leave his prison cell in North Carolina and board a plane to Tel Aviv is Rafael Eitan, an 87-year-old pensioner and amateur sculptor once known by the nickname Rafi the Stinker.
Pollard, now 59, handed over boxes of classified documents to Israel while working as a Navy intelligence analyst in Washington in the mid-1980s, in what the American government has described as one of the most compromising espionage operations ever against the U.S.
Eitan, a master spy in his own right, ran the Israeli intelligence agency that operated Pollard until his arrest in late 1985.
Now, as a complicated deal for Pollard’s release falters — along with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to keep negotiations alive between Israelis and Palestinians — Eitan says Israel should have insisted on his release last summer when it freed Palestinians to enable the current round of peace talks.
“No Pollard… no freeing Palestinian prisoners. That should have been our position,” he said in an exclusive phone interview. Eitan, who has been out of the spy business for more than 20 years and has no role in the negotiations, said Israel has missed opportunities to leverage Pollard’s release.
The deal for Pollard would have ended a three-decade saga that has strained ties between Israel and its closest ally and been an agenda item in summit meetings since the Clinton administration. It called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and slow housing construction in Jewish settlements scattered across the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
In exchange for those gestures, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would have agreed to continue negotiating with Israel for another year and put off applications for Palestinian membership in world bodies like the International Criminal Court, which both Israel and the United States oppose.
The deal seemed to be so close at hand in recent days that Israeli press reports suggested Pollard might even celebrate Passover in Israel later this month.
But the details have proved difficult for both Israel and the Palestinians to swallow. In Ramallah, members of Abbas’ inner circle complained that Israel had already missed a deadline over the weekend for freeing a batch of prisoners. The Palestinian leader went ahead and signed 15 membership applications on Tuesday, prompting Kerry to cancel another trip to the region.
If that didn’t kill the deal — Kerry told reporters in Brussels that the process could still be salvaged — resistance within Netanyahu’s coalition is also an obstacle. Members of the Jewish Home party were meeting Wednesday to decide whether to leave the coalition in the event the Pollard-for-prisoners deal goes forward. Other government figures, including deputies in Netanyahu’s own Likud party, tend to reject restrictions on settlement expansion and any release of prisoners.
“I think it’s immoral to release prisoners with blood on their hands. We have to be strong and not allow the Americans to pressure us,” said Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon of Likud.
“I think it’s very cynical to include Pollard in this agreement in order to put pressure on the Israelis,” he told Yahoo News. Danon complained that the United States has kept Pollard in prison much longer than comparable spies.
Eitan, who said he’s following all the twists in the negotiation, first met Pollard in Paris in late 1984, a few months after the Navy analyst offered to spy for Israel. Eitan had already been legendary in Israeli intelligence circles, having led Mossad’s operation in 1960 to capture the Nazi Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann. He earned the nickname Rafi the Stinker after a mission in the 1940s that involved crawling through a sewer.
According to published accounts of the Pollard affair, Eitan overruled other Israeli officials who thought spying on the United States would jeopardize a critical relationship. America has given Israel tens of billions of dollars in military and civilian aid over the years.
He also insisted that Pollard — an American Jew deeply sentimental about Israel — take money for his work, a standard procedure in intelligence operations designed to ensure the spy’s continued service. When the FBI closed in on Pollard and his wife in late 1985, Israeli officials denied them refuge in the Israeli embassy in Washington. A federal judge later sentenced him to life in prison.
Eitan said in the interview that Israel had been too vulnerable to turn down Pollard’s services.
“You should remember that 30 years ago, the security of Israel was not clear and at the time, we would do anything to survive. When your target is to survive, you do many things that you don’t do when you’re stable.”
He said the United States had kept Pollard in prison all this time to deter other Jewish Americans from committing similar crimes.
“For only one reason, I believe: to show the Jewish people in the United states, especially those who work with the government, that they should be careful. ‘As we do with Pollard we’ll do with you.’”
As part of a deal with the U.S. following Pollard’s arrest, Eitan and others involved in the affair handed over evidence that helped authorities convict Pollard. Eitan has since been barred from entering the United States.
He said he has refrained from contacting Pollard or his family over the years. “I didn’t want to do anything that might harm Pollard.”
In the absence of a deal, Pollard is expected to be freed on parole late next year. Having served 29 years of a life term, he may just prefer to wait, rather than have his release entwined with the peace process. Pollard’s comments over the years have placed him on the hawkish side of Israeli politics.
When Netanyahu freed Palestinian prisoners last summer as part of the negotiations, Pollard wrote in the Jerusalem Post that Israel had “discarded all the moral underpinnings of its own existence.”
“No Israeli official has advanced a single compelling reason in support of the wholesale release of these murderers and terrorists. The claim that it ‘serves national interests’ is spurious. There is no national interest that supersedes morality,” he wrote.