ISRAEL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek Jonathan Pollard’s release

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After raising the issue in private back-channels as well as personally with U.S. presidents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to publicly and officially appeal to President Obama to release Jonathan Pollard.

Netanyahu’s decision follows a personal letter from Pollard, hand-delivered to the prime minister by Esther Pollard, wife of the convicted spy. ‘I hereby request that you submit an official request for my release to the President of the United States now, without further delay, and that concurrently you announce this request publicly,’ wrote Pollard, who stated his willingness to ‘bear the risk of any consequences ' that may result from the prime minister’s action.


Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst, was convicted of passing classified information to Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. Israel did not acknowledge Pollard for many years but granted him Israeli citizenship in 1995, during Netanyahu’s first term in office. A few years later, Israel publicly conceded Pollard had been an Israeli spy.

American intelligence officials have been staunchly opposed to any compromise on the issue and are believed to have foiled previously reported deals on his release. Others maintain that Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate at best, and based on circumstances that are no longer relevant.

Caspar Weinberger, secretary of Defense at the time of Pollard’s arrest, had suggested information Pollard supplied Israel made it to the Soviet Union, where U.S. spies had then been exposed. Lawrence Korb, Weinberger’s assistant, is now calling for Pollard’s release and says his former boss’ contentions -- many of which remain classified -- have been debunked.

For many years, the activism on behalf of Pollard’s release has been largely contained to the political right wing in Israel, and had also served as a chip in diplomatic bargaining that never paid off. But with the convicted spy now having spent 25 years in jail, broader circles in Israel and the U.S. are saying it’s time to stop discussing Pollard under the table and put talks about his status out in the open.

Ronit Tirosh, an Israeli opposition lawmaker, is among those supporting an official call to release Pollard and has urged Netanyahu to seize the ‘window of opportunity’ offered by the holiday season, which embodies symbols of family, unity and compassion. ‘It’s also customary to grant pardons in America during this season,’ she told Israel radio.

She said she hopes the combination of charitable spirit and a public appeal might work. Putting a formal request on the table will also oblige the American administration to formally state its position on the matter once and for all, she said.

Former government minister Rafi Eitan, who headed the office that handled Pollard (and is persona non grata in the U.S.) said what Pollard did ‘pales in comparison to WikiLeaks,’ referring to the website’s controversial release of secret U.S. State Department and Pentagon documents

Speaking of WikiLeaks, the latest batch of cables out there puts some perspective on a different case.

In 2004, New Zealand arrested two Israeli citizens on charges of passport fraud, saying they tried to obtain a passport using the identity of a New Zealand citizen suffering from cerebral palsy. Believed to be Mossad agents, the two were sentenced to some jail time (and ordered to make a donation to the Cerebral Palsy Society), while a more senior suspect skipped the country. New Zealand downgraded relations with Israel, taking the strongest diplomatic action since French spies bombed the Auckland harbor two decades earlier.

In a classified cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Wellington and reported by the Guardian, American officials suggested the government of New Zealand had little to lose by reacting harshly but much to gain with Arab states with which the country was actively pursuing trade.

Another cable sent two days later was more direct about the diplomacy involved: ‘The overly strong reaction to Israel suggests that the government of New Zealand sees this flap as an opportunity to bolster its credibility with the Arab community ... and perhaps help New Zealand lamb and other products gain greater access to a larger and more lucrative market,’ wrote American officials, who didn’t think anyone would be reading their comment before 2014.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem