JERUSALEM — Israeli government officials fretted Wednesday over ways to limit damage to Israeli-American relations in the wake of Jonathan Jay Pollard's life sentence for spying and the indictment of the Israeli military officer said to have been Pollard's first "handler."
A senior government source said that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin already had met privately to discuss ways to restore Israel's and their own tarnished credibility.
The three are said to have discussed particularly "some kind of agreement that will satisfy the Americans" and "reverse" Tuesday's unprecedented federal grand jury indictment of Brig. Gen. Aviem (Avi) Sella on charges of conspiring with Pollard to steal U.S. military secrets.
U.S. investigators have wanted for months to question Sella but have not been able to agree with the Israeli government on ground rules for the questioning.
Give No Reaction
A spokesman for Shamir said that the government would have no immediate reaction to Pollard's sentence, which was announced late Wednesday night here.
The Hebrew-language newspaper Hadashot had editorialized earlier that the state of Israel was in effect standing in the dock with Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst. Thus his life sentence was seen here as a stern warning to the government.
There was mounting criticism here Wednesday of the government's handling of the incident, particularly of Sella's promotion last week to command of the country's second-largest air base. Hadashot described it as an ill-considered "slap in the face for the U.S. Administration," particularly because it came just five days before Pollard's sentencing.
American officials protested the promotion as a violation of a 1985 Israeli government pledge that those involved in the spy ring would be punished.
Sources on the intelligence subcommittee of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, said Wednesday that the subcommittee will reopen an investigation into the Pollard affair within a matter of days as a result of the latest developments.
Statements by Pollard
The subcommittee's deliberations are secret, but it is said to be particularly interested in a charge made by Pollard, in a pre-sentencing memorandum, that "the highest levels of the Israeli government" knew of his spying. One source said that the subcommittee also wants to look into Pollard's statement that he was asked to turn over U.S. intelligence information on senior Israeli officials.
Israel has said that Pollard was recruited as part of a "rogue operation" unknown to top officials here. It apologized to the United States soon after Pollard's arrest in November, 1985, and said that it had disbanded the intelligence unit of which he was a part.
It also pledged to help in Washington's investigation, although U.S. investigators now say that the officials who were made available for questioning knowingly misled questioners.
Sella's indictment and Pollard's sentence are thus seen here as a direct slap at the credibility of top Israeli officials. A Foreign Ministry source described the resulting situation as a "real mess," and a senior member of the Knesset confided: "We all feel awkward. . . . It's bad."
Limits to Travel
Sella's indictment means that he cannot travel to the United States or to countries that have extradition agreements with Washington except at the risk of being arrested. (The U.S.-Israeli extradition treaty does not cover espionage cases.)
Also, Sella's promotion presents immediate practical problems. In his new post he will command the important Telnof air base near Tel Aviv, a base frequently used for the arrival of official delegations from the United States and elsewhere. The base commander typically greets and briefs state guests on such occasions.
But U.S. officials refuse to have any dealings with Sella because of his role in the Pollard affair. That was not particularly difficult before, when he commanded a smaller air base in the southern Negev desert, an American source pointed out, adding: "but now he's a lot less easy to avoid."
Sella, 41, is a highly regarded officer previously considered certain to become head of the Israeli air force. He reportedly commanded an attack wing in the 1981 Israeli raid that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor outside Baghdad. And he is said to have played a central role in planning the successful destruction of Syria's ground-to-air missile defense system in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Defense Minister Rabin was reportedly under pressure from his senior military commanders, who argued that Sella's career should not be sacrificed in the name of Israeli-American relations. They argued that it has always been characteristic of the Israel Defense Forces not to abandon a soldier in trouble.