Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned for almost three decades as an Israeli spy, made clear Tuesday that he has no intention of serving as a pawn in the floundering diplomatic chess match being played among the United States, Israel and the Palestinians.

As expectations rose, then quickly fell, about Pollard’s release in exchange for Israeli concessions to keep the peace process alive, the prisoner himself passed up a chance for possible release.

The U.S. Parole Commission, assembled at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., for a hearing Pollard had requested in December — his first request since he became eligible for consideration nearly two decades ago — was told he had changed his mind.

It may have been that the past several weeks of intense negotiations in the Middle East had boosted Pollard’s optimism that President Obama would order him freed with a grant of clemency, eliminating the need for parole.

If that was the case, the apparent collapse of peace negotiations just hours after the aborted hearing would call the strategy into question. Pollard’s attorneys declined to comment.

Jonathan Pollard, now 59 and shown above in 1998, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy who was arrested in 1985 after providing classified information to Israeli agents. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for release in November 2015. (Photo by AP)

What Israel wants, what the U.S. wants and what might happen next

A few of the very negative things U.S. officials have said about Pollard

It could also be that Pollard simply objected to the proposed deal, which includes Israel’s release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and mutual agreement to stay at the negotiating table with Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

In an op-ed article in August in the Jerusalem Post, Pollard said the release of “dangerous, unrepentant murderers and terrorists” would dishonor Israel’s dead, “betray its bereaved, and disgrace its citizens for the sake of political expediency.”

Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel, an ardent opponent of prisoner releases, told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday that Pollard considers the deal “shameful” and opposes it.

Pollard’s possible release has been raised in virtually every
Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation since he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. Although some U.S. presidents have considered it, all have rejected it.

But as negotiations Kerry has been shepherding since last summer began to unravel several weeks ago, his team proposed a “grand bargain.” Both sides would agree to remain in discussions for the next several months, including talks about “final status” issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem.

The Palestinians would postpone a threat to activate their latent membership in the United Nations, where they could marshal international activism against Israel.

Israel would go ahead with the final tranche of prisoner releases promised when the negotiations began. Chief U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk argued that Pollard’s long-sought release would serve as a sweetener for the Israelis, helping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold his fractious political coalition together, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive diplomacy.

A decision to grant clemency to Pollard rests entirely with Obama. To do it, he would have to steer around long-standing objections of the U.S. intelligence establishment, which have consistently argued that the secrets Pollard sold to Israel in 1984 and 1985 were unrivaled among other spies in their quantity and quality.

“I think he needs to remain in jail,” said Ronald Olive, a former senior supervisor with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who investigated Pollard. “Pollard has nothing to do with the peace talks between the Israeli government and Palestinians. He should not be in the equation.”

Olive’s comments were mild compared with those made in the past about the former naval civilian intelligence officer. His life term, according to the federal judge who sentenced him, was substantially based on a 46-page statement to the court by then-
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who said that Pollard’s activities had “substantially harmed the United States” and that he deserved “severe punishment.”

According to a CIA damage assessment partially declassified in 2012, Pollard was an unstable braggart whose competence as an intelligence analyst was allowed by his employers to override repeated concerns about his trustworthiness and stability.

After his recruitment by Israeli agents in 1984, Pollard made bi-weekly visits to a Washington safehouse, carrying suitcases full of classified documents about Arab and Soviet weaponry, deployments and military readiness. In exchange, he received monthly payments exceeding his government salary, plus gifts and the promise of $300,000 to be deposited in a European bank. The payments lasted until Pollard was arrested in November 1985.

Israel initially denied any knowledge of him then said he had been working for a “rogue” intelligence operation. Jewish groups in this country, shocked that an American Jew could be guilty of espionage, disowned Pollard for many years.

But since the late 1990s, Pollard has attained the status of national folk hero among many Israelis. Numerous prominent Americans have called for his release on grounds that he spied only for an ally.

For Obama, the domestic political fallout from releasing Pollard — as some advisers have urged — must be weighed against the possible negotiating room it could give Netanyahu.

Pollard and his supporters have demanded clemency for decades, and his lawyers have argued that the only way to make his case was with the release of the “Weinberger Declaration,” which remained largely classified and unavailable to his lawyers to contest. Their demand went to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case on grounds of separation of powers.

But before the most recent turn of events, and Obama’s serious consideration of releasing him, Pollard for the first time asked for the parole consideration he has been eligible for since 1995. Along with that December request, his lawyers again appealed to the federal courts to gain access to the full Weinberger document. Since they were not asking for clemency, the lawyers said, no separation of powers was involved.

The case remains in District Court. In the meantime, after waiving Tuesday’s parole hearing, Pollard “is no longer being considered for parole but is entitled to reapply for parole at any time,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.

Under federal guidelines, Pollard will be released Nov. 21, 2015, unless the U.S. Parole Commission objects.

Gearan reported from Brussels. William Booth and Ruth Eglash, in Jerusalem, and Julie Tate and Adam Goldman, in Washington, contributed to this report.