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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 1999 /7 Tishrei, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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When Forgiveness Becomes a Political Question -- THE 10-DAY PERIOD between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is traditionally the time when Jews ask each other for forgiveness. But Jews looking to start 5760 with a fresh slate aren't the only ones asking for a free pass for past transgressions these days. Pardons have been much in the news lately, with forgiveness being extended to some very unsavory characters.

In the Middle East, negotiations on the so-called Wye II peace accord eventually signed at Sharm El-Sheik by representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority hinged on Israel's release of 350 Palestinian Arabs, most of whom have been held on security charges.

Though the P.A. had wanted Israel to release more prisoners, they settled for the promise of 350; 199 of them were released last week, just before Rosh Hashanah. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced that none of those let go had directly participated in the murder of Israelis, although many had killed Arabs who had collaborated with the Israeli government.

The expression used was that none had "blood on his hands," although the prisoner release did not exclude those terrorists who had merely wounded their Jewish victims - as opposed to killing them. Nor did it leave out those who had played a supporting role in the terrorist infrastructure, as opposed to pulling the trigger or exploding the bomb themselves.

All those released allegedly promised to support the peace process. Let's hope they keep their word. After being sprung from Israeli prisons, the ex-prisoners were reportedly each handed weapons as part of the gala ceremonies celebrating their freedom upon their arrival in Gaza. As painful as the prisoner releases were in Israel - where protests by families of terrorism victims created a difficult situation for Barak - the controversy was matched in the United States by the clemency extended by President Clinton to 14 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group.

The Puerto Rican terrorists were members of a group called the Armed Forces of National Liberation (in Spanish, the acronym for this group is FALN), which had committed terrorist acts in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, six Americans were killed and 130 were wounded in FALN bombings of civilian targets, such as the attack on the historic tavern in New York City where George Washington said farewell to the Continental Army.

As with the Palestinians, none of those released had been convicted of direct participation in murder.

Despite their formal agreement to the strict conditions of their release, the FALN members who were let out of jail were as defiant and unrepentant as the released Palestinian terrorists who were greeted with jubilant gunfire in Gaza. Like the standard Palestinian replies when similarly confronted, the FALN members refused to even apologize to the families of their victims when asked to do so on the NBC news show "Meet the Press." Instead, they replied that it was the United States that was the real criminal.

One particular politician who ran into trouble on this issue was none other than the wife of the president who offered the terrorists clemency: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton initially supported the offer of clemency, but then as public opinion swelled against it, she reversed her position, claiming that her husband had never consulted her!

That ran counter to the conventional wisdom on the issue since most observers assumed the granting of clemency was timed to help Hillary gain support among Puerto Rican-Americans for her proposed bid for a seat in the United States Senate. That theory makes sense but I wonder why the Clinton pander machine never took into account the fact that the people of Puerto Rico have repeatedly voted down independence from the United States.

Mrs. Clinton wound up being bashed by both sides: opponents of clemency who blamed her for her husband's actions and supporters of clemency who blamed her for showing insensitivity to Puerto Ricans.

Meanwhile, lurking at the margins of these controversies remains the issue of one prisoner who still has not been offered clemency, let alone a complimentary assault weapon or an appearance on "Meet the Press": Jonathan Pollard.

It was only a matter of time before the Pollard issue would creep into these discussions, so it was no surprise when supporters of clemency for the U.S. Navy Department analyst who spied for Israel said that they were going to ask Mrs. Clinton to intervene on his behalf with the president.

Pollard's plight is the American Jewish nightmare that won't go away. Many are wondering why Pollard's release is still considered out of the question, while terrorists are getting out of jail.

And when you consider that opponents of clemency for Pollard have made an issue out of whether or not he has expressed remorse for his crime (in fact, he has), the brazen statements of the released FALN members are a little hard to take.

Leiters Sukkah

Despite all the rumors floating about the alleged cost of Pollard's treachery to the United States, there still is no evidence on the record that he damaged American security. Pollard violated his oath and committed an egregious crime in a misguided effort to aid Israel. But he did not murder or maim anyone.

Pollard was viciously manipulated by his Israeli handlers, and then abandoned by them.

It was no accident that the first Israeli government to make a genuine effort to free Pollard was that of Benjamin Netanyahu. Up until his election, Israel had been led by the three men who were in power at the time of Pollard's espionage: Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin. All three were in a position to know what he was doing, and their lack of enthusiasm for taking responsibility for him can be traced to the fact that they were the ones who stood to be embarrassed by any further disclosures from the spy.

Netanyahu's efforts to release Pollard at the time of the original Wye agreement last fall were shot down by an absolute refusal of the American security services. Their all-out campaign against Pollard reportedly forced President Clinton to go back on promises to Netanyahu that he could obtain Pollard's release in exchange for further Israeli concessions to the Palestinians (on territory as well as prisoners).

That public setback has probably made it even harder for Clinton to let Pollard go, even were he willing to do so.

Why is forgiveness refused Pollard when those who committed political crimes against the United States are so easily forgiven? The CIA supposedly thinks that there is still a pro-Israel mole in the U.S. government who aided Pollard. Others theorize that the reason is a basic prejudice against Israel by the security apparatus or a desire to make an example of Pollard so as to deter future treachery by friends of Israel.

Whatever the real reason, I think it is clear that after 14 years in prison, Pollard has suffered enough - especially when you consider that his sentence was disproportionate to the sentences of those who committed similar crimes. It is particularly distasteful that an American government that is so quick to pressure Israel to release terrorists and so willing to free those who committed terrorism on our own soil is so hardhearted when it comes to Pollard.

During these Days of Awe, when teshuvah is so much a part of our lives, it is particularly poignant to think that his sin alone - and not those committed by terrorists - is something that cannot ever be pardoned. In the same spirit of repentance, let me also ask forgiveness from any of our readers who may have been unintentionally offended by anything I wrote in the past year. As for those whom I offended on purpose in the course of doing my duty as a journalist, here's hoping that they are ready to apologize for some of the things they did, though I doubt whether Clinton, Netanyahu or Arafat - to name three - are reading this.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin