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After High-Profile Lobbying, Israel Wants Spy's Release To Be Low-Key

Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is expected to be released from U.S. federal prison on Friday after 30 years behind bars for passing on U.S. government secrets to Israel.

When the Navy analyst was caught, his arrest initially caused consternation in Israel and denials that senior Israeli officials knew what he was doing.

But calls for to free Pollard early were soon taken up by Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Pollard in prison in 2002. Netanyahu had served previously as prime minister, but held no public office at that time.

Last July, when Pollard's release date was set, Netanyahu said he had "consistently raised the issue of his release in meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive U.S. administrations," all who ultimately declined to intervene.

Now, a senior Israel official confirms the prime minister has told his cabinet members to not comment publicly on Pollard's release, citing the high sensitivity of the case that remains to this day.

Pollard's case has been a thorn in U.S.–Israeli relations for decades. But when Pollard walks, what's left to be sensitive about?

Moving to Israel.

Pollard, who was born in Texas and went to Stanford University, began working for the U.S. Navy as an intelligence analyst in 1979. He was arrested in November 1985 outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington after passing American secrets to Israel for more than a year. This is according to the government's 1986 summary of Pollard's case in district court.

An Israeli man walks past a banner in 2013 depicting President Obama and Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish-American who was jailed in 1985 on charges of spying on behalf of Israel. Israelis have repeatedly called for Pollard's release. He is expected to be freed from a North Carolina prison on Friday.
Sebastian Scheiner / AP
An Israeli man walks past a banner in 2013 depicting President Obama and Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish-American who was jailed in 1985 on charges of spying on behalf of Israel. Israelis have repeatedly called for Pollard's release. He is expected to be freed from a North Carolina prison on Friday.

Still A Point Of Tension

Then, as now, the U.S. and Israel shared intelligence. Americans were furious Israel would try to steal secrets its biggest backer didn't choose to share. Initially, the Israeli leadership dodged confirming exactly who knew what when.

More details trickled out over the years. As they did, and Pollard's time in prison grew, his case became a celebrated cause among many Israels.

An gained steam. Supporters said his punishment was out of proportion to his crime. Some American members of Congress joined the chorus of voices calling for Pollard's freedom. Pollard's case came up in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at least twice, each time entertained as a possible carrot to entice Israel to certain actions.

Israeli Ronen Bergman, a journalist for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper who is completing a new history of Israel's Mossad spy agency, has written extensively about Pollard. He says support for the spy began among right-wing, religious Jews, and evolved into a narrative that is broadly accepted in Israel.

"The narrative is this," Ronen says. "The United States claims to be our closest partner. However, it refused to share with Israel much of the information it had on the Arab countries. Here comes this Pollard, a Jewish hero, who has access to the material. He realizes that the material contains valuable information for the national security of Israel. And he decides to change reality, change politics, take the risk, and go to help Israel."

Bergman calls this is an example of Israeli thinking "jailed in their own siege mentality," reflecting little understanding of American views.

Pollard is shown in this 1985 photo following his arrest.
Pollard is shown in this 1985 photo following his arrest.

Will He Be Allowed To Move To Israel?

In 1995, Israel gave Pollard citizenship. But when he leaves prison Friday, it will be up to the U.S. Parole Commission to decide if he can move to Israel.

A Department of Justice official says the commission has the discretion to keep Pollard under supervision for a maximum of 15 years.

Pollard's second wife, Esther, who he married while in prison, maintains a home on a café-lined pedestrian street in central Jerusalem. Regulars here know her by sight. And many say they'll be glad to see her husband free.

"He paid the bill," said Nava Vinter Katzir, 48, owner of a framing shop on the ground floor of Esther Pollard's apartment. "I think he paid a lot. I'm happy for him. He's going to be free."

"We're very happy," said Michael Shir, coming out of the salon next door, after a close trim of his white hair. "Because he's Jewish. Because he fought for Israel, you know, he's a hero. He suffered for Israel."

Shlomo Perets, 59, on his way to a business meeting, said he's always believed Pollard did nothing good for Israel. But he's spent enough time behind bars, he said.

After all, Pollard "didn't murder," Perets said.

'A Humanitarian Case'

Opposition politician Nachman Shai co-chairs the Knesset caucus to free Pollard. He says over time, the focus of the campaign changed from justifying Pollard's actions to caring for a person suffering.

"It became a humanitarian case. Someone who wasn't well. He wasn't even given a chance to attend his mother's and father's funerals."

This is the kind of thing that irritates every Israeli, said Shai.

Pollard has not seemed to play a large role in exacerbating the irritations in the current American-Israeli political relationship. Shai jokes that "there's enough tension" between Netanyahu and President Obama that Pollard has little effect. Both governments say Israeli-U.S. intelligence sharing is more robust than ever.

Still, the political relationship is sensitive enough that Netanyahu wants his government ministers to keep quiet as Pollard supporters push for a short parole.

Two members of Congress have written to urge U.S Attorney General Loretta Lynch to allow Pollard to go to Israel as soon as he is released. But Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman says Pollard's usually vocal supporters have promised Israeli officials and Pollard's lawyers to keep a low profile.

"Not celebrate his release, not do anything that would be seen as poking the eyes of the American administration," Bergman says. "Because they want him to be off the jurisdiction of the parole board, in order to able to immigrate to Israel. And also not to create a useless tension, further tension between the two countries."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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