Clintons denial of Pollard enrages leaders

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In what many of those in attendance denounced as a "travesty," Clinton did not tell the Conference of Presidents of his decision; the president just smiled when Reich made the personal appeal.

Members of the Conference of Presidents learned of the decision when a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked Clinton about it as he left the private meeting with the Jewish leaders.

The president did not respond to two requests to make a comment.

"I am dumbfounded that he would do this to us," said Reich, who once led the organized Jewish communal effort to win Pollard's release. "It is as if he is trying to give the world a signal that he would not pander to the Jewish community."

Jewish officials who have long called for Pollard's release condemned Clinton's decision to deny clemency to the former U.S. Navy civilian intelligence analyst who was arrested in 1985 outside the Israeli Embassy here.

Pollard pleaded guilty in 1986 to stealing secrets for the Israeli government and, in 1987, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

McCurry did not mince words when announcing the president's decision.

"The enormity of Mr. Pollard's offenses, his lack of remorse, the damage done to our national security, the need for general deterrence and the continuing threat to national security that he posed made the original life sentence imposed by the court warranted," McCurry said.

Clinton also refused to shorten Pollard's sentence, McCurry said, because doing so at this time "is unwarranted and would disserve the goal of deterrence."

Esther Pollard, in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, called the denial of clemency "plain wrong" and said her husband's incarceration "has to end now."

"He has had it," said Esther Pollard, who began a hunger strike Sunday to call attention to her husband's plight. "His strength is limited. We can't go on."

Clinton's decision to deny clemency formalized White House policy announced in March.

White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told a caller to CNN's "Larry King Live" talk show at that time that the president believed that a pardon is not justified.

Clinton has formally denied Pollard clemency two times, the first in March 1994. President Bush also refused to commute Pollard's sentence before leaving office.

Some Jewish officials recalled that Clinton in 1994 rejected Pollard's appeal one day before meeting with the same group.

"It is as if the president has gone out of his way to act when he meets with the leaders of the Jewish community," Reich said.

Members of Congress who have supported Pollard's quest to gain release from jail were swift to condemn Clinton's decision.

"While there is no excuse for his conduct, the life sentence given to Pollard was clearly disproportionate to his crime," said Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.).

"Out of friendship and respect for our Israeli ally as well as a sense of fundamental fairness, we should release Pollard now."

Fox and Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) sent a letter to Clinton last year demanding Pollard's release.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying that Israel "regrets the decision."

Netanyahu, like his predecessors Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, had raised Pollard's fate during meetings with Clinton.

Earlier this year, the Peres government granted Pollard Israeli citizenship, a move the convicted spy had hoped would bolster his chances of release.

Pollard's closest supporters have long maintained that his sentence was unjust.

"Jonathan Pollard has always been a convenient tool in the hands of those who want to discredit Israel as a reliable ally," Esther Pollard, his wife, said.

Now, "Mr. Clinton abdicated his constitutional responsibility to remain above the fray of vested interests."

Rabbi Avi Weiss, Pollard's rabbi and president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, decried Clinton's denial as unjust and pledged to make the Pollard case an issue in the presidential election campaign.

Weiss said he had spoken to Pollard after Clinton's denial but refused to disclose what was said.

Pollard was eligible for parole after completing 10 years of his sentence late last year, but the parole board has delayed meeting several times.

Pollard apparently decided to forego the parole path while the White House mulled his clemency request.

McCurry pointedly told reporters that this option remains available.