After a lengthy debate at the Knesset Wednesday, an overwhelming 106 of the 120 Knesset members signed off on an official request to US President Barack Obama to free American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard after 28 years of incarceration.
The letter is slated to be sent directly to Obama in the coming days, while Knesset Speaker Edelstein will also pass on a copy to the US Senate and a delegation of Knesset members will present the request to the US ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro.
“The Israeli Knesset is turning to the US President Barack Obama to request, on humanitarian and humanistic grounds, in light of his grave medical condition, to limit the sentence of Jonathan Pollard and order his immediate release,” read the decision from Wednesday’s debate.
“This humanitarian gesture is essential, and even necessary for Israel-US relations at this time,” the statement continued, alluding to recent tension between the two countries over the revelation, by NSA spy Edward Snowden, that the US was monitoring the emails of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and spied on former defense minister Ehud Barak.
Forty Knesset members, from a range of political parties, presented their positions at the plenum.
Edelstein, a former political prisoner in the USSR, was the first to address the Knesset. “I hope that perhaps, in the environment emerging at this time, this discussion will advance the efforts to free him after 28 years — an unbearable period — and I say this as one who tasted the deprivation of liberty and freedom,” he said.
Labor MK Yehiel Bar compared Israel’s prisoner releases, aimed to advance peace with the Palestinians, to the request to release Pollard. “We hope that the US government will identify [with Israel] and release Pollard, although it may be difficult to many people in the US,” Bar said. “Although it’s difficult, do what we do here: Release prisoners just in order to talk to the other side.”
While many members of the Arab factions opposed the request, others supported it wholeheartedly. “On behalf of myself and on behalf of my party, we turn to the US to immediately release Pollard,” said MK Ibrahim Sarsur of the United Arab List. He also added that he “felt an emotional kinship with Pollard when I heard about the conditions under which he lives,” since they reminded him of the conditions of Palestinians prisoners in Israel.
Members of Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid, the Jewish Home, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Meretz supported the move.
On Monday, Netanyahu met with Esther Pollard, wife of the Israeli-American spy, and “updated her on the non-stop efforts to release Jonathan,” according to a statement by his office.
The meeting came on the heels of calls by several Israeli politicians for Washington to consider freeing Pollard, after revelations over the weekend that the National Security Agency had spied on a number of Israeli leaders.
The White House on Monday said it had no intention of letting the convicted spy go free.
An unnamed source in the White House office told Channel 10 that the president “stands behind the things he said before he visited Israel [in March]. Pollard committed a very serious crime, and [Obama] has no intention of releasing him.”
However, Netanyahu was said to be pushing again for Pollard’s release as part of the wider terms for Israel signing a framework agreement with the Palestinians that Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly poised to present to the two sides.
Pollard was convicted in 1987 on charges of passing classified information to Israel while he worked as an intelligence analyst for the US Navy. He was given a life sentence for the crime, sparking decades of activism for his release by Jewish groups, and, more recently, some high-profile US and Israeli officials.
Netanyahu opened the cabinet meeting Sunday with a promise that Israel would continue working toward Pollard’s release.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report