Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is nothing if not an expert in chutzpah. He wants Washington to release Jonathan Pollard, arrested a quarter century ago on the steps of the Israeli embassy after spying for Israel, in exchange for a freeze on West Bank settlements. Even stranger is the fact that 39 American congressmen also are urging the release of Pollard who was, well, a traitor.
Presumably peace is in Israel's interest. Israel's future as a democratic Jewish state is threatened by its militarized occupation of the Palestinian territories. Why then should the U.S. government have to release someone who spied on the U.S. government for Israel to induce Israel to seek peace?
Some advocates of Pollard's release contend that the damage from his activities was exaggerated and his sentence was unduly harsh. Perhaps, though it ill behooves the Israeli government to make this case. After all, Israel maintains arbitrary restrictions on Mordechai Vanunu 24 years after he was kidnapped by Mossad agents and returned to Israel for trial after exposing the details of Israel's nuclear program.
But Vanunu's plight suggests an obvious deal. Israeli officials, so solicitous of Pollard's welfare, should show equal concern for that of Vanunu. The U.S. and Israeli governments should do a trade akin to the hoary spy swaps between Washington and Moscow. Send Pollard to Israel. In return, Israel should allow Vanunu to emigrate to wherever he wishes.
Jonathan Pollard spied for Israel for money. He claimed he also did so out of loyalty to Israel. Although he was arrested attempting to enter the Israeli embassy, the Israeli government disclaimed any responsibility for his actions, claiming his was a rogue operation. Israeli officials later admitted their role and sought his release.
Mordechai Vanunu was a Sephardic Jew whose family immigrated to Israel from Morocco. He went to work at Israel's undeclared Dimona nuclear plant -- the sign outside declared it to be a "textile" factory. He gradually grew disillusioned with Israel's secret nuclear program, thought to have produced 150 to 200 atomic bombs, and surreptitiously took photos of the plant. He immigrated to Australia, converted to Christianity, and traveled to Great Britain after meeting a journalist for the Sunday Times who was interested in his story.
Vanunu's account made the paper's front page, but a Mossad agent convinced him to join her in Rome, from which he was kidnapped, drugged, and returned to Israel. Shimon Peres, usually seen as a liberal peacenik, apparently insisted on Vanunu's seizure.
Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He spent the first 11 and a half years in solitary confinement. Although formally released in 2004, he remains in a form of prison: barred from leaving the country, approaching foreign embassies, talking to journalists, owning a cell phone, or even using a computer. Ironically, these rules are part of the 1945 British Mandate State of Emergency Regulations -- imposed by the British colonial overlords ousted to create the state of Israel.
Since then Vanunu has been periodically threatened, arrested, convicted, placed under house arrest, sentenced to community service, and imprisoned for violating the terms of his parole. In October the Israeli Supreme Court denied his appeal to be released from these restrictions and allowed to leave the country.
Vanunu has become an international cause célèbre, regularly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, termed a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International, and awarded the Carl von Ossietzky Medal, named after the renowned German pacifist murdered by the Nazis. Nevertheless, Israel, the Mideast's regional superpower, claims to be afraid of Vanunu.
The justification for maintaining his informal imprisonment is that he might share more nuclear secrets. However, he gave away the big story in 1986 and any other information likely is badly outdated. As he put is, "I am not harming Israel. I am not interested in Israel."
While he could be expected to say that, a decade ago Ray Kidder, a nuclear scientist at America's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, observed: "On the basis of this research and my own professional experience, I am ready to challenge any official assertion that Mr. Vanunu possesses any technical nuclear information not already made public."
Knowledgeable Israelis also dismiss the claim that Vanunu remains a security risk. For instance, retired brigadier-general Uzi Eilam, who ran the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission between 1976 and 1986, said "I don't think he has significant things to reveal now." Eilam urged Vanunu's release.
The better explanation for the continuing restrictions is simple spite. Despite Israel's vaunted reputation for security, Vanunu shot two rolls of photos of the Dimona plant. Despite Israel's calculated public subterfuge, Vanunu demonstrated that everything Israel's leaders had said about their nuclear capabilities was a lie. The Israeli government does not forgive and forget.
Ironically, it is hard to discern any international harm done Israel by Vanunu's revelations. After all, Israel was widely believed to have nuclear weapons. Uzi Eilam even argued that Vanunu "served the regime because his revelations helped Tel Aviv intimidate others."
Now would be a good time for both America and Israel to turn their backs on the past. Pollard's sentence was abnormally heavy; Vanunu's post-imprisonment restrictions are unreasonably onerous. Neither figure poses a security threat to anyone.
A swap would be good in another sense. Pollard wants to go to Israel. Vanunu wants to go to America.
The latter explained: "I would like to move to the United States. I have adopted parents in Minnesota. I have many, many friends in the United States, who used to write to me and send me letters and cards for many years during eighteen years. I read a lot of your history of United States and am very appreciative of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. freedom."
The U.S. should not have to release Pollard to reward Israel for making peace. Peace should be its own reward. Palestinians understandably see ongoing settlement activity as a further attempt to colonize the West Bank and thereby impede Palestinian statehood. Expecting the Palestinian Authority to negotiate without a settlement freeze is expecting the PA to risk political suicide.
But Washington should offer to swap Jonathan Pollard for Mordechai Vanunu. Indeed, who better symbolizes the president's desire for a nuclear-free world? Mordechai Vanunu has suffered enough for a crime which did Israeli security no harm. It is time for Israel to return his freedom.