After 34-year delay, Pollard handler Aviem Sella promoted to brigadier general

Former IDF officer, who was pardoned by Trump in January, was meant to be promoted in 1987, but left the military when it came to light that he’d helped spy in the US

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Aviem Sella giving a lecture in Herzliya in 2012. (Screenshot: YouTube)
Aviem Sella giving a lecture in Herzliya in 2012. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Col. (res.) Aviem Sella, the recruiter of Jonathan Pollard, the American naval intelligence analyst who spied on the United States for Israel, will receive the rank of brigadier general on Wednesday, the military said, 34 years after he was due to be promoted but instead left the army over his role in the espionage affair.

Sella, who has long since retired from military service, was meant to receive the rank of brigadier general in 1987, when he was tapped to command the Israeli Air Force’s Tel Nof Base. But due to his involvement in the Pollard affair, which caused a serious strain in the Israeli-American relationship, Sella instead stepped down from his position and fully retired from the military five years later.

A former fighter pilot who took part in the 1981 strike on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, Sella started working for the Mossad intelligence agency in the early 1980s and received some of the classified top-secret documents initially provided by Pollard.

He remained deeply involved in the affair despite not handling Pollard directly for most of the espionage stint.

Sella fled to Israel days before Pollard was arrested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC. He was indicted for espionage in 1987 in absentia, but was never extradited by Israel to the US to stand trial.

In January, then-US president Donald Trump granted Sella clemency shortly before the end of his term in office, at the urging of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Miriam Adelson, the wife of top conservative donor Sheldon Adelson, who died earlier this year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Jonathan Pollard at Ben Gurion Airport, December 30, 2020 (Courtesy)

“The State of Israel has issued a full and unequivocal apology, and has requested the pardon in order to close this unfortunate chapter in US-Israel relations,” the White House said at the time.

The Israel Defense Forces said the decision to grant Sella the rank of brigadier general was made at the request of IAF chief Amikam Norkin, with approval from IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The ceremony was scheduled to take place on Wednesday at the military’s Kirya headquarters in central Tel Aviv.

Pollard, who was released from prison in 2015, was recently allowed to move to Israel after his parole restrictions were not renewed by the US Justice Department.

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