WASHINGTON — Senior diplomats in the Clinton administration initially blocked Israeli efforts on behalf of Marc Rich but were bypassed in the final decision-making process when Clinton granted the fugitive Rich a pardon on his last day in office, current and former U.S. officials said.
The Israeli government first approached senior American diplomats in support of Rich in 1995, the officials said. At the time, the Israeli government was not asking for a pardon for Rich but rather a tacit American acceptance of a proposal to allow him to travel more freely around the globe without fear of being arrested and returned to the United States, officials said.
But the Israelis dropped the matter when they met with unified resistance from senior State Department officials.
Israeli leaders never again raised the Rich matter with American diplomats, officials said. It was not until the final days of the Clinton administration that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, in telephone conversations, personally asked Bill Clinton to pardon Rich, officials said.
Current and former U.S. officials said they don't believe the matter was raised by Barak until either late December or January and said they believe that was the first time the Rich case had been broached in official channels since 1995.
Rich's lawyer, former White House counsel Jack Quinn, and other defenders of Clinton's pardon of Rich have said the pardon grew out of Clinton's desire to help Barak and foster Middle East peace, not from political donations from Rich's former wife, Denise Rich.
In an interview on Thursday with Geraldo Rivera, Clinton himself said, "Israel did influence me profoundly." But despite the personal requests by Barak to Clinton, clemency for Rich was never an issue in the Middle East peace talks that Clinton worked at until he left office.
"This was not a factor in the Middle East talks," said Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's longtime Middle East envoy, who said he did not know about the Rich pardon until he read about it in the newspaper after it had been announced. Ross, who remained involved in President Clinton's Middle East peace efforts until the final days of the Clinton administration, said that he was not asked about the Rich pardon by Clinton.
Other senior Clinton administration officials deeply involved in American-Israeli relations said they were not consulted by Clinton, either. Through a spokeswoman, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that she was not consulted by Clinton about the pardon.
George Tenet is the director of Central Intelligence who played a critical role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and was frequently in Israel for meetings on the negotiations. Tenet was never approached by the Israelis seeking a pardon for Rich, a spokesman said. He was also not consulted by Clinton on whether to pardon Rich, the spokesman said. Sandy Berger, Clinton's former national security adviser, has said he was not consulted.
Some Justice Department officials have also complained that they were not consulted until the last minute about the Rich pardon, which was handled by the White House.
In 1995, Ross, the Clinton administration's top U.S. Middle East envoy, and Martin Indyk, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, both rebuffed efforts by senior Israeli officials, including Shimon Peres who was Israel's foreign minister at the time, to convince the United States to agree to allow Rich greater freedom of movement around the world. The Israeli officials said that Rich had proposed raising billions of dollars to help Israeli government efforts aimed at economic development of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of a Middle East peace agreement, and that he had said he needed to be able to travel more freely to do so.
But after checking with State Department lawyers and the Justice Department, Ross said he rejected the proposal. Indyk also rebuffed the Israeli proposal for Rich.
"I had never heard of him, but I was very uneasy when I found out about Rich's background," said Ross, who recently left government. He said he turned the matter over to a State Department lawyer, and never agreed to any Israeli proposals about Rich.