Spy strains US-Israeli ties. But strong friendship with Israel will preclude harsh sanctions
Washington — The fallout from the Pollard spy case is raising fundamental questions in the United States about relations with America's closest friend in the Middle East. Though the US and Israel continue to be linked tightly by cultural, economic, and strategic ties, Jonathan Pollard's spying - and apparent efforts by Israel to cover it up - have caused consternation even among Israel's strongest supporters here.
(US official expresses disappointment in Israel's ``selective'' cooperation in Pollard investigation, Page 5.)
But a broad range of sources say it is unlikely this consternation will translate into major US sanctions against Israel, such as cutting foreign aid. Ties with Israel run too deep and the influence of America's pro-Israel lobby is too strong to permit that, they say.
Nonetheless, sources say, officials at the State Department and the White House may be less inclined to intercede on behalf of Israel in any future federal investigations involving Israeli officials in the US.
``It's inconceivable that the Israelis would not recognize that this is not the usual flap that occurs between friends from time to time,'' says Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees US aid to Israel. ``This is a serious matter.''
Israeli officials moved Tuesday to limit the damage caused by the Pollard affair by appointing a two-member commission to investigate the matter. After initial opposition, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, under pressure from American Jewish leaders and the Israeli press, agreed to the formation of the panel.
But questions have been raised about how effective the panel will be, since it does not have the status of an official commission of inquiry and has not been given subpoena power.
Congressional sources say it is unlikely that dissatisfaction with Israel on Capitol Hill will result in cuts in America's annual $3 billion aid contribution to Israel.
``I don't think there will be a penny cut from aid to Israel,'' a well-placed Senate source says. But the source adds that if Israel does not take steps to placate angry lawmakers, Congress might move to withhold temporarily a portion of the aid package.
Under one possible scenario, some US aid might be withheld until President Reagan or Secretary of State George Shultz certifies that Israel has fully cooperated with an ongoing US investigation into broader aspects of the Pollard affair.
Mr. Pollard, a former Navy counterterrorism analyst in Washington, was sentenced to life in prison last week for selling thousands of pages of classified US documents to Israel. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has called the affair one of the most damaging spy cases in US history.
Embarrassed Israeli government officials maintain that the Pollard spy ring was a ``rogue operation'' and was unknown to top Israeli government officials. US investigators suspect otherwise but say they have not yet uncovered any new information suggesting high-level Israeli government knowledge of the Pollard spy ring.
Unless, however, there are clear indications of Israeli cooperation in the US investigation, sources say, congressional ire might jeopardize possible US concessions on sensitive immigration and financial issues involving Israel.
``There's still a floor under the relationship,'' says a Middle East specialist here. ``There's no interest in bashing Israel with slash-and-cut punitive actions. But there could be all kinds of little things like [withholding such concessions].''
Much will depend on the outcome of a federal investigation of the other members of the Pollard ring. Last week a federal grand jury in Washington indicted Aviem Sella, a highly decorated Israeli Air Force officer alleged to have been Pollard's ``handler.''
Meanwhile, Justice Department officials say that investigations are continuing into the roles played by three other Israelis: Rafael Eitan, a former Israeli intelligence official; Joseph Yagur, a former science adviser at the Israeli consulate in New York; and Irit Erb, a former staff worker at the Israeli Embassy here.
Details of the Israelis' involvement with Pollard - particularly Mr. Sella's role - deeply embarrassed State Department officials who had secured guarantees from Israeli officials of full cooperation in the Pollard matter and had moved to limit the scope of the investigation.
Justice Department investigators quickly realized they had been deceived by the Israelis after Pollard himself began to talk about his spy career.
``Information was withheld from us and lies were told concerning material facts in the investigation,'' says John L. Martin, who heads the Justice Department unit that prosecutes alleged spies.
``There are hard feelings at Justice for the way the State Department tried to cover up as soon as Pollard started to talk,'' the Middle East expert says. ``From now on the Justice Department is going to be more bulldogish [in Israeli-related investigations] and less susceptible to pressure from others in the administration,'' he says.
Observers say the reluctance of many in Congress to impose a ``Pollard penalty'' on Israel is tied in part to heavy campaign contributions given by various pro-Israel groups to congressmen who make decisions concerning Israel.
``There's angst and fire over this,'' a congressional source says of the anger generated by the Pollard affair on Capitol Hill. ``I hear strong complaints in the corridors, but not on the television cameras.''