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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2001 / 30 Shevat, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Did the Jews make him do it?

Clinton’s pardon of Rich puts Israeli and American Jewish leaders on the spot -- To the consternation of his successor and the anguish of many of his staunchest supporters, former President Bill Clinton’s hold on the spotlight remains secure.

But unfortunately, Clinton’s death grip on the media’s attention is causing some of his best friends -- including the American Jewish community -- a lot of tsuris (anguish).

Clinton’s bizarre last-minute pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich is an act so contrary to accepted notions of good government that it has virtually no defenders other than Rich’s lawyers. Clinton’s ability to cover his tracks and squeak between the cracks in the law will always outstrip the ability of congressional investigators and federal prosecutors to make him accountable. The revelations about the January pardons were disturbing enough for those of us who are still capable of outrage about the way these Arkansas grifters degraded the White House but this time Clinton has even outraged some of his most loyal supporters.

But the latest twist in this story has particularly ominous implications for the State of Israel and American Jews.

In setting forth the reasons for the Rich pardon in an op-ed piece published by The New York Times on Feb. 18, Clinton listed eight different reasons for the pardon of a man accused of serious crimes -- a man who has been linked to scandalous business dealings around the globe with the world’s worst dictatorships.

The eighth point, and the only one Clinton began with the word "importantly," stated that "many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich … "

Clinton did not admit his mistake; neither did he confess that he had issued the pardon as a quid pro quo for the massive contributions Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, gave to the Democrats and to his own presidential library. Instead, he insisted that "foreign-policy considerations [i.e. Israel’s wishes] and the legal arguments" were the only reasons for his action.

Clinton seemed to be telling the world, "Don’t blame me: The Jews made me do it."

Up to this point, the stench of the Rich affair had only marginally attached itself to the Jewish community -- which actually learned after the fact that many Israeli and American Jewish big shots had written letters urging Clinton to pardon the financier.

It was bad enough that people like Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League; and Marlene Post, the former international president of Hadassah had joined former prime minister Ehud Barak and others in speaking up for Rich.

All these Jewish VIPs writing letters may have given the White House the mistaken impression that giving Rich a free pass for serious crimes was a Jewish issue. Of course, the fact that few American Jews had even heard of Rich -- let alone cared about a man who had renounced his American citizenship -- doesn’t seem to have entered the discussion.

But now, with Clinton’s statement putting Israel and the Jews at the center of this mess, the Jewish angle stops being a sidebar to the story. Now, it’s the main feature.

Indeed, last week The New York Times devoted a story solely to the topic of whether or not Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel had joined the clamor for Rich’s pardon. As it turns out, Wiesel claims he did not participate, which provides some comfort for those of us wondering whether there was anyone not willing to sell his good name for the sake of Rich’s money. A careful reading of the record on Rich’s pardon seems to show that cash for the Democrats and the access of former White House consul Jack Quinn were far more important than anything Marlene Post had to say about Rich.

But while experience should teach us to treat anything Clinton says as having only a tenuous relation to the truth, his assertion that Jewish lobbying for Rich was a decisive factor has a degree of credibility. It may well be that Clinton saw the Rich pardon as, in part, a way of doing a favor for some of his friends and loyal supporters. Clinton may have taken a look at the two-page long list of prominent Israeli and American Jewish bigwigs and concluded that pardoning Rich was a big deal to the Jews.

The notion that Rich’s pardon actually advanced American foreign policy is laughable. And the revelations of some of Rich’s "good deeds" (accomplished in the course of his immoral business dealings with Iran, Libya, North Korea and the former Soviet Union) raise questions in and of themselves.

One report claims that when Egypt paid compensation to the families of Israeli victims of an Egyptian border-guard’s murder spree in the 1980s, it was really Rich and not the Egyptians who paid. In other words, Rich’s cash helped cover up the fact that the Egyptians were unwilling to act responsibly, and the subterfuge helped lessen pressure on them to begin acting like the "moderates" we are told they are.

Another "good deed" by Rich is his funding of programs in the Gaza Strip that were supposed to help bolster the peace process. But anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the issue of aid to the Palestinian Authority knows that such donations were nothing more than bribes pocketed by P.A. leader Yasser Arafat and his cronies.

Also troubling is the way Rich's reported $80 million in donations to various Jewish charities apparently bought him the endorsement of the leaders of those groups for his pardon. It is one thing for a Jewish philanthropy to take Rich’s money, or even to give him a plaque. It is quite another when, in exchange for money, an institution identified with the Jewish community chooses to vouch for someone who fled the country under criminal indictment for serious offenses and then thumbed his nose at Uncle Sam from the safety of his Swiss hideout.

It is high time for those of us who care deeply about these issues to ask groups like the U.S. Holocaust Museum -- and others who were dragged into Rich’s scheme by their purse strings -- to start asking themselves whether the Jewish ethics we teach to our children also applies to our institutions.

Even worse, the campaign for Rich distracted Clinton at a critical moment in the effort to pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard’s spying for Israel was wrong, and he deserved to be punished. But after 15 years in jail, there’s no longer a rationale for keeping him there, especially given the government misconduct in the course of his plea bargain. There is a genuine Jewish consensus that giving Pollard clemency is the right thing to do.

And, after having first entrapped him and then abandoned him in the field, Israel’s leaders had a responsibility to try to gain Pollard his freedom. At this point, helping Pollard has become a matter of pidyon shvuyim, "redeeming a Jewish captive." That is not the case with Rich, whose current roost in Switzerland is considerably cushier than Pollard’s cell in Butner, N.C.

It may be that Rich’s petition enabled Clinton to think he had a choice between pardoning the financier or Pollard. If so, the testimonials of all those leaders and rabbis bought by Rich’s donations extracted an even higher price: making it easier for Clinton to deny Pollard’s petition. That means the spy is doomed to at least several more years in jail.

Even worse, the involvement of Israel in the Rich scandal may help undermine support for the Jewish state in this country at a crucial moment when the peace process has failed and the new government needs American backing.

At best, Bill Clinton is probably skirting the truth when he puts so much of the onus for the Rich pardon on Israel and the Jews. But that doesn’t erase the fact that both Israeli and American Jewish leaders made a terrible mistake by involving themselves in Marc Rich’s web of influence peddling. This pardon was not a Jewish issue. They had no right to speak in our name or to associate the honor of the Jewish people with this disreputable character. For this blunder, they will need to ask a far higher authority than the president for a pardon. If they need a letter of support, I suggest they ask Clinton, though I imagine he will first require a donation.

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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