TEL AVIV – The recent disclosure that American intelligence spied on former Israeli prime ministers has given new momentum to the effort to secure a pardon for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several leading Knesset members have called for Pollard’s release following reports that documents leaked by former defense contractor Edward Snowden showed that U.S. intelligence had targeted the email addresses of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.
Pollard’s case “isn’t disconnected from the U.S. spying on Israel,” Nachman Shai, the co-chair of the Knesset caucus to free Pollard, said. “It turns out, it’s part of life. And what he did is a part of life.”
Israeli media reported over the weekend that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had offered to — or was looking into the possibility of — releasing Pollard as part of the fourth scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners. However, President Barack Obama reportedly has not signed off on the offer.
Kerry was scheduled to arrive in the region this week to continue his push for a deal between Israel and the Palestinians after the planned release of 26 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. It is the third of four releases agreed to in the current round of U.S.-backed peace negotiations. The final release is set for sometime before the April 2014 deadline for the end of the current negotiations, at which time a framework agreement is supposed to be announced.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Sunday morning in an interview with Army Radio that there is “no direct link” between Pollard and the peace negotiations.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein accused the United States of “hypocrisy” for holding Pollard, who, as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, spied on the United States for Israel, even as it spied on Israeli leaders. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said he wants the Israeli government to demand Pollard’s release and insist the United States cease its espionage operations in Israel. And opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Pollard’s punishment “has long passed the limits of sensibility.”
“We hope that the conditions will be created that will enable us to bring Jonathan home,” Netanyahu said Dec. 22 at the Israeli Cabinet’s weekly meeting. “This is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”
Pollard pleaded guilty to passing national defense information to the Israeli government in 1986 and was sentenced to life in prison the following year. He is being held at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina.
When Pollard’s crimes first came to light in the mid-1980s, his activities were seen as a major act of betrayal, given the close alliance between Israel and the United States. But the Snowden revelations show that spying by the United States and Israel was a two-way affair, prompting a new round of calls for the release of Pollard.
Support for freeing Pollard represents a rare point of consensus in Israeli politics, with 100 Knesset members among the 120 signing a letter asking Obama to release Pollard, according to Shai. Eighty members signed a similar letter last year.
But Ronen Bergman, an expert on Israeli intelligence who is writing a history of Israel’s spy agencies, says that Israeli pressure is unlikely to convince Obama to free Pollard in the short term.
“I’m quite positive that it won’t happen tomorrow because otherwise it will look as if the president of the United States accepts the claim that following the recent revelations from Edward Snowden, he should parole Jonathan Pollard,” Bergman said. “But once the Americans were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, it paints the Pollard issue in a different color.”
The clamor for Pollard’s release has grown steadily in the United States as well over the past several years. Jewish communal organizations now are essentially united that Pollard’s sentence has been excessive and that he should be released on humanitarian grounds. They have appealed unsuccessfully to successive presidents to release him. The late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Secretary of State George Shultz have also expressed their support for his release.
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a vocal advocate for Pollard’s release who raised the issue in his November speech to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that American calls for the release of Pollard hold more sway than Israeli advocacy.
“What really matters is what American public opinion and American professionals and the American Jewish community feel,” Sharansky said. “I want to be cautious, but I think we passed a checkpoint. Now we don’t see people thinking” that Pollard’s release “is unthinkable.”
Supporters of Pollard have long argued that his three decades of incarceration for spying on an ally is excessive. Revelations of American espionage may strengthen the rhetorical argument on Pollard’s behalf, they say, but the merits of the case for release stand on their own.
“Without any connection to the recent news, there’s no question that the time has already come when the Israeli public and senior officials want this tragedy to come to an end,” said Adi Ginsburg, a spokesman for the advocacy group Justice for Jonathan Pollard. “American justice and shared values between the two countries, like justice and mercy, necessitate Pollard’s freedom.”