WASHINGTON — The arrest of Jonathan Pollard for spying for Israel in 1987 touched off one of the most sensational spy cases in recent American history, stoking fierce international passions and decades of legal and diplomatic wrangling.
Thirty years later, Pollard, 60, has been granted parole from his life sentence by the US Parole Commission, which set his release for Nov. 21.
In some ways the dispute continues. His lawyers say they will ask President Barack Obama for clemency and to allow Pollard to travel from the United States to Israel. The White House dismisses that prospect, saying Pollard had committed “very serious crimes” and would serve his sentence under the law.
“We are looking forward to his release,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday.
The Pollard case has been a divisive political flashpoint — and an occasional diplomatic bargaining chip — from the day in 1985 he was arrested while trying to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. .
Supporters have seen the former Navy intelligence analyst as a martyr who was punished excessively given that he spied for a longtime US ally. But critics, including many in the US government, have condemned the American as a traitor who exchanged secrets for money.
“He took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, and he failed it,” said M.E. “Spike” Bowman, a former FBI deputy general counsel. “The fact that he gave it to an ally, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I’m glad that it was an ally rather than the Russians, but what he did makes absolutely no difference.”
Even as many American Jews have wrestled with how much leniency Pollard should get, Israelis have long campaigned for his freedom. The government there has recognized him as an Israeli agent and granted him citizenship. Still, recent American presidents have rejected overtures to free him, with former President Bill Clinton writing in his memoir that Pollard’s release “was a hard case” to push.
Said Netanyahu, in Israel, “Throughout his time in prison, I consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive US administrations.”
“Immense joy,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote in Hebrew on her Facebook page, adding that “30 years of suffering will come to an end this November.”
Still come commentators in Israel noted that Pollard’s continued position as a cause celebre in Israel would not do well for Jerusalem’s ties with Washington.
“If Israelis celebrate his release and possible “homecoming,” there must be a responsible adult in Israel who understands how turning a spy into a returning hero will be interpreted in Washington,” Israeli columnist Ronen Bergman wrote in the New York Times. “Israelis must realize, even if 30 years too late, that Americans see Mr. Pollard as a traitor of the worst kind and that celebrating his release will only further harm Israel’s already strained relations with America.”
“Pollard was not an Israeli spy, he was an American traitor. He betrayed his country for different reasons, not all of them pure, and offered his services to several countries, not just Israel,” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday, as unofficial reports of Pollard’s imminent release swirled. “Pollard is not an Israeli hero. That is a fabrication with roots in political interests.”
The US had dangled the prospect of Pollard’s release during Israel-Palestinian talks last year, but the peace efforts collapsed and nothing came of the proposal.
Though the decision was announced just weeks after the US-Iran nuclear deal, White House officials strongly denied that Pollard’s parole had anything to do with that agreement, or that was it was intended as a concession to Israel. Officials there have said that while they would welcome his release, it would not ease their opposition to the Iran agreement.
The Justice Department, for its part, noted that federal sentencing rules in place at the time of Pollard’s prosecution entitled him to parole after 30 years of his life sentence. Department lawyers did not contest his parole bid, which was granted following a hearing this month before the Parole Commission. He was presumptively entitled to parole provided he had a record of good behavior in prison and was seen as unlikely to commit future crimes once released.
His lawyers say they have secured housing and a job for Pollard in the New York area. Parolees are required for five years after their release to get government permission for foreign travel.
“The president has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.
Pollard has faced health problems in recent years. He is being held in the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. His lawyers said he was “looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife, Esther.”
His supporters maintain that he provided information critical to Israel’s security interests at a time when the country was under threat from its Middle East neighbors. Prosecutors and many in the US intelligence community say that his disclosure of voluminous classified documents constituted a criminal breach on par with that of America’s most infamous spies.
The US has said Pollard provided reams of sensitive and classified information to Israel, including details about radar-jamming techniques and the electronic capabilities of nations hostile to Israel, including Saudi Arabia.
A court statement from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Pollard did “irrevocable” damage to the US and had provided the Israelis with more than 800 US classified publications and more than 1,000 classified messages and cables. Portions of the Weinberger document that have been declassified state that Pollard admitted passing to his Israeli contacts “an incredibly large quantity of classified documents” and that US troops could be endangered because of the theft.
Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s lawyers, rejected that assessment, saying his client “loves this country” and “never intended to do anything to harm the United States.”
“We are grateful and delighted that our client will be released soon,” said a statement from Pollard’s lawyers, Lauer and Jacques Semmelman.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.