Eric Holder’s status as designated target among the Obama nominees, suggested initially in a tendentious editorial in National Review, was confirmed yesterday in a front-page New York Times story about his role in the Marc Rich pardon. Expect to hear much more from Republicans explaining why poor Holder proved his unworthiness to serve as attorney general when he allowed President Clinton to do what the Constitution enabled him to do anyway.
The Times article, written by two of the paper’s best reporters, provided additional details of Holder’s contacts with the attorneys representing Rich, but it omitted a salient fact that has been missing from every account of the pardon over the past seven years. The fugitive financier, as he is known, has not returned once from his lair in Zug, Switzerland, to the United States. In other words, he has never actually used the pardon – perhaps because he would first have to pay up tens of millions of dollars he owes in back taxes, a condition set by Clinton.
More to the point, the Times account provided only the slightest hint of what preoccupied Clinton during the months and weeks leading up to the pardon, signed on his last day in office. Only at the very end does it mention the pressure from “the Israelis” that had persuaded Holder not to oppose the pardon – as he told Beth Nolan, then the White House counsel.
When that stray remark is placed in context, the entire pardon decision takes on a very different coloration.
As the president mulled Rich’s pardon application, Clinton was involved in his final and most intense efforts to revive the Mideast peace talks that had foundered at Camp David the previous summer. He was speaking very frequently with Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, trying to persuade the Israeli prime minister to approve concessions to the Palestinians only weeks before national elections were to take place in Israel.
During that period, Barak’s constant pleas on behalf of Rich were echoed by Clinton’s old friend Shimon Peres, as well as the former chief of Israel’s intelligence service and a host of other important figures in Israel and the American Jewish community.The Rich pardon was a top priority for Israeli officials because he had long been a financial and intelligence asset of the Jewish state, carrying out missions in many countries where he did business – notably including Iran.
A variety of pundits in the mainstream and right-wing media have discounted this aspect of the Rich controversy. But they often seem unfamiliar with critical facts (or perhaps assume that their readers are).
Here’s the short version.
The final round of peace talks began in Taba, Egypt, on Jan. 21, 2001, the day after Clinton signed the Rich pardon. Those negotiations came closer to achieving a durable settlement than any before or since.
As I’ve written before, Clinton’s decision remains vulnerable to harsh criticism in both substance and appearance. But the pardon power exists precisely because presidents must be free to make such choices for reasons of state. As a lame duck, Clinton had very few means to induce his Israeli partner to take any risk for peace, especially at that political juncture. All of this was ignored or discounted, quite wrongly, in the aftermath of the Clinton presidency. The sudden revival of the Rich pardon furor has seen no improvement in the coverage so far.