JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a letter Tuesday to President Obama, formally asking for the release of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for Israel in a case that shook U.S.-Israeli relations.
The White House issued a noncommittal response. “We have received the letter and will review it,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.
The letter represented a change in Israel’s policy on the case, which Netanyahu and his predecessors had quietly raised with several U.S. administrations, but not through an official and public appeal for clemency. Netanyahu read out the text of his letter at a session of parliament.
“Since Jonathan Pollard has now spent 25 years in prison, I believe that a new request for clemency is highly appropriate,” Netanyahu wrote. “I know that this view is also shared by former senior American officials with knowledge of the case, as well as by numerous Members of Congress.”
“Jonathan Pollard has reportedly served longer in prison than any person convicted of similar crimes, and longer than the period requested by the prosecutors at the time of his plea bargain agreement. Jonathan has suffered greatly for his actions and his health has deteriorated considerably.”
Netanyahu wrote that although Israel was “in no way directing its intelligence efforts against the United States” when Pollard was caught in 1985, “its actions were wrong and wholly unacceptable,” and that both Pollard and Israeli governments have repeatedly expressed remorse. “Israel will continue to abide by its commitment that such wrongful actions will never be repeated,” Netanyahu said.
“I know that the United States is a country based on fairness, justice and mercy,” Netanyahu wrote, adding that if clemency is granted, “the people of Israel will be eternally grateful.”
Israeli officials said the decision to make a public and official clemency appeal came in response to a written request from Pollard and after discussions with top U.S. officials had proved unproductive. Netanyahu met last month with Pollard’s wife, Esther, who passed along her husband’s request, and with Lawrence J. Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and supports clemency for Pollard. Korb advised Netanyahu to make the public appeal.
The CIA has consistently opposed releasing Pollard, as have U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials who have argued that clemency would show unacceptable leniency toward a spy who had turned over tens of thousands of pages of classified information.
Pollard, who worked for the Navy as a civilian intelligence analyst, began spying for Israel after he met an Israeli officer on leave in the United States in 1984. He was arrested outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington 18 months later and is currently imprisoned in North Carolina.
Israel first dissociated itself from Pollard, saying he was acting in a rogue operation, but he was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995. During Netanyahu’s first term in office in the late 1990s, he officially recognized Pollard as an Israeli agent and later visited Pollard in jail in 2002.
Greenberg is a special correspondent.