JERUSALEM — Israel reacted with cautious optimism Sunday to the news that the spy Jonathan Pollard might be released on parole from a U.S. prison in November after serving 30 years of a life sentence. But Israeli leaders stressed that Pollard’s freedom would not derail their plans to vigorously oppose the Iran nuclear deal.
The American-born U.S. intelligence analyst, who sold top secrets to the Israelis, has been jailed since 1985. His uncovering was a major embarrassment for Israel, which relies on the United States as its No. 1 ally. The Pollard affair strained relations between the two countries’ spy agencies, and his early release was opposed by a generation of top U.S. intelligence officials serving under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly, personally sought Pollard’s release; the Israeli leader visited Pollard in federal prison in North Carolina in 2002, when he was out of office.
News that Pollard might be released at his next parole hearing in November, after serving 30 years, was seen by many as an attempt by the Obama administration to “compensate” Israel for the Iran deal, which the Netanyahu government vehemently opposes as an existential threat to Israel's survival.
Publicly, Israeli leaders denied any quid pro quo.
An Israeli official in the prime minister’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions, said: “Israel has for years been calling for Jonathan Pollard’s release for humanitarian reasons. This is ongoing. We routinely bring it up.”
Pollard, an American Jew, worked as a field analyst at the Navy’s Field Operations Intelligence Office when he was arrested. He is 60, has spent half his life in prison and reportedly has health problems. His supporters say that he spied out of love for Israel and that the secrets he stole aided only Israel and did not harm U.S. interests. His detractors call him a traitor who stole for money; most of the American Jewish community has kept him at arm’s length. Israel granted him citizenship in 1995.
The Israeli official said “we apologized decades ago” for employing Pollard as a spy. The official said the prime minister concurred with White House assertions “that this has nothing to do with the Iran deal.”
The Justice Department said Friday that the terms of Pollard’s life sentence require that he be released after 30 years unless the government can show he violated prison rules or remains a danger.
The White House rejected the suggestion that it would use Pollard’s release to appease Israel or sway Congress to support the Iran deal.
Congress is weighing a vote to approve the Iran deal, which would lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for limiting the country’s nuclear program and freezing for a decade or more its creation of weapons-grade uranium. Israeli leaders and lobbying groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee plan to press Congress to kill the deal.
A National Security Council spokesman, Alistair Baskey, said Pollard’s future would be decided “according to standard procedures” of the U.S. Parole Commission and that “there is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard’s status and foreign policy considerations.”
An Israeli member of parliament, Nachman Shai, chairman of the Knesset caucus for Pollard’s release, said that it would be an insult to link the Iran deal to Pollard’s future.
“After 30 years, Pollard has to be released. That is the maximum period,” Shai said. “No other prisoner has served in a U.S. prison for such a long period for a similar crime.
“They did not treat him well and they took it up to the worst point, so to say that this is a gesture from the American side to soften the Iran deal is an insult, and that is the least I can say,” he said.
This past year, more than 100 of the 120 Knesset members signed a letter to President Obama asking for Pollard to be released a year before the end of his sentence.
On Sunday morning, Israel’s three leading newspapers all ran front-page articles on Pollard’s possible release, with headlines reflecting Israeli sentiment, such as “On His Way Home,” “Crossing Fingers” and “Pollard: Because It’s About Time.”
Columnist Ronen Bergman in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth wrote that it was hard to see the timing of Pollard’s release “as a mere coincidence.” He called Pollard “a consolation prize” for the Iran deal.
Bergman and other Israeli political commentators noted that U.S. and Israeli diplomats discussed releasing Pollard as a way to bring Israel back to the negotiating table after talks with the Palestinians collapsed this past year.
What will happen to Pollard if he is released in November is another matter of concern to the Israelis, who want Pollard to come to Israel and not be required to remain under supervision in the United States.
“We are not responding to reports over the weekend in the media; we are waiting for an official announcement before we comment,” said Effi Lahav, head of the Free Pollard Campaign.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.