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Israel hails U.S. release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard

Pollard spy release

Forrmer U.S. intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, who spent three decades in prison for spying for Israel, leaves the federal courthouse in New York on Friday with his wife, Esther.

(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

Israeli officials welcomed the release Friday of former U.S. intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, who spent half his life in prison after being convicted of spying on the U.S. for Israel.

“I had long hoped this day would come,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within minutes of the release. “After three long and difficult decades, Jonathan has been reunited with his family,” said Netanyahu, who welcomed Pollard on behalf of the nation.

“Blessed is he who frees the imprisoned,” said President Reuven Rivlin, using a phrase taken from Jewish prayer that many others would use throughout the day. “Throughout the years, we have felt Jonathan’s pain and felt responsible and obliged to bring about his release,” Rivlin said.

The case of Pollard, 61, caused a fierce crisis in relations between the U.S. and Israel and left both sides with scars that linger decades later. Most Israeli officials chose their words with care Friday, reportedly under instructions to remain low-key to avoid stirring antagonism that could sabotage the chances of Pollard being allowed to depart the U.S. for Israel eventually.

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After denying any part in Pollard’s spying, Israel eventually termed him a patriot and granted him Israeli citizenship.

A close circle of activists lobbied on his behalf and American presidents visiting Israel encountered demonstrations and “Free Pollard” posters. Israeli lawmakers formed a parliamentary lobby that took up Pollard’s cause and in his multiple terms in office, Netanyahu had repeatedly tried to secure his release.

Over the years, flurries of reports had claimed Pollard’s parole was near, sometimes as part of a deal to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, as was the case as recently as the last round of talks, which collapsed 18 months ago.

“A struggle concluding, a struggle beginning,” wrote opposition lawmaker Nachman Shai in a letter to Pollard on Friday. “Throughout the years, we have been doing our very best to offer you what help we can,” said Shai, who heads the Knesset Caucus for Jonathan Pollard that was dedicated to advancing his release.

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Personal support for Pollard -- although not necessarily for his actions -- crosses political lines in Israel. A year ago, more than 100 members of the 120-seat Knesset sent President Obama a letter on Pollard’s behalf.

Wishing Pollard “a new and fulfilling life” with his wife, Esther, Shai pledged the caucus would continue to work to lift restrictions imposed on Pollard with his release. “We will not rest until you are free to depart the United States for any destination of your choosing, first and foremost -- Israel,” he wrote.

Minister Uri Ariel, a former chairman of the same parliamentary lobby, termed Pollard’s release a holiday. “After decades of imprisonment under difficult circumstances, Jonathan is now free to walk around, breathe the air of freedom and welcome the Sabbath with his family as a free Jew,” Ariel wrote on Facebook.

Although the release was seen as a festive moment, Ariel urged Israelis to “remember the harsh attitude” of senior U.S. officials over the years, including what he said was a presidential promise from Obama in his first term that was not kept.

Lawmaker David Bitan announced Friday plans to expedite his bill for Israel to finance all of Pollard’s living, health and housing expenses for the remainder of his life. “The State of Israel owes him a moral debt and I intend to ensure it makes good on it,” Bitan said.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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