Netanyahu, Rivlin welcome end of Pollard’s parole, await his arrival in Israel

PM thanks envoy to US Ron Dermer for efforts to lift restrictions on ex-Navy analyst who spied for Israel; lawyer says he’ll make aliya when wife’s medical condition allows

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu meets Esther Pollard, the wife of US-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, June 29, 2015 (Amos Ben Gershon/PMO, courtesy)
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu meets Esther Pollard, the wife of US-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, June 29, 2015 (Amos Ben Gershon/PMO, courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday welcomed the termination of Jonathan Pollard’s parole and said he looked forward to welcoming the former US Navy analyst, who served 30 years of a life term for spying for Israel, was freed on parole five years ago, and completed his parole period on Friday.

“The prime minister was committed to his release for many years and worked tirelessly for his return,” read a statement from Netanyahu’s office, released nearly 24 hours after the Justice Department’s decision, which was handed down after the Sabbath began in Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin also said Israel was “waiting for him and his family at home” and wished him “a new life in health and peace.”

“We felt his pain all these years and felt a responsibility and an obligation to bring about the release of Jonathan Pollard.”

President Reuven Rivlin in a Rosh Hashanah message to Jews around the world, September 17, 2020 (video screenshot)

Pollard, who served 30 years in prison for providing sensitive intelligence to Israel, made a public appeal to Netanyahu last year and asked him to intervene on his behalf to urge Trump to commute his parole, so he could care for his sick wife.

Netanyahu thanked Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer “who handled the contacts responsibly and sensitively with the American administration,” the statement added.

“The prime minister looks forward to Jonathan Pollard’s arrival in Israel soon and wishes to strengthen him and [his wife] Esther, along with all Israeli citizens,” it said.

Pollard, 66, was a US Navy intelligence analyst in the mid-1980s when he made contact with an Israeli colonel in New York and began sending US secrets to Israel in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.

Pollard, who is Jewish, passed thousands of crucial US documents to Israel, straining relations between the two close allies.

Israel’s October 1985 raid on the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Tunis headquarters that killed around 60 people was planned with information from Pollard, according to CIA documents declassified in 2012.

He was arrested in 1985 and was sentenced to life in prison two years later, despite pleading guilty in a deal his attorneys expected would result in a more lenient sentence.

He was eventually released in 2015, but was kept in the United States by parole rules and not allowed to travel to Israel where his wife, whom he married after he was jailed, lived.

He remained subject to a curfew, had to wear a wrist monitor, and was prohibited from working for any company that lacked US government monitoring software on its computer systems. In addition he was restricted from traveling abroad.

The US Justice Department’s decision was announced via a statement from Pollard’s attorneys Jacques Semmelman and Eliot Lauer.

Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther, enter federal court in New York on April 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

“Mr. Pollard is no longer subject to a curfew, is no longer prohibited from working for a company that does not have US government monitoring software on its computer systems, is no longer required to wear a wrist monitor that tracks his whereabouts, and is free to travel anywhere, including Israel, for temporary or permanent residence, as he wishes,” the statement said.

It also included a message from Pollard himself saying he was glad to be able to move to Israel where he will be able to care for his wife who is sick with cancer. He also expressed “appreciation and gratitude” to Dermer “acting under the auspices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” for their efforts on his behalf.

“Jonathan and Esther plan to come to Israel, but they cannot do so immediately, due to Esther’s chemotherapy treatments,” Lauer told Kan news. “They plan to [to do so] as soon as her condition allows,” he added. “They plan to come home.”

The timing of his move to Israel “will depend on the doctors, and Esther’s health,” Lauer told Channel 12 in an interview broadcast Saturday night.

Asked directly whether the Trump administration or the Israeli government had something to do with the termination of his parole on Friday, Lauer replied: “During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administrations, there was a tremendous effort on the part of the Israeli government. We probably would take the credit but I think the good lord wanted Jonathan to finally come home.”

In this July 22, 2016 file photo, convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, left, with his lawyer, Eliot Lauer, leave federal court in New York following a hearing. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister, File)

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett also praised the news that Pollard was now fully free, saying in a statement that “the State of Israel owes a deep debt to Jonathan Pollard who gave us over 30 years of his life.

“We are waiting to see him settle in the Land of Israel, which is his home, as soon as possible,” he added.

The Friday decision brought to an end a saga that once threatened Israel’s close military cooperation with its main ally and created one of the most serious rifts between Jerusalem and Washington in recent decades.

Given the high profile nature of Pollard’s case, it is likely that the Justice Department’s decision required an okay from government higher-ups. In setting the ex-spy free, the Trump administration bestowed yet another gift to Israel, which has lobbied for years for Pollard to be allowed to move to the Jewish state. Previous efforts have met fierce resistance from the US justice and intelligence communities.

A former civilian US Navy analyst, Pollard was given a life sentence in 1987 for passing secrets to Israel. His imprisonment was a longtime point of tension in Israeli-US relations, with Israeli and Jewish leaders petitioning their US counterparts for years in order to secure his release.

Pollard’s supporters argued for years that his sentence was excessive and that others convicted for comparable crimes received lighter sentences.

Jonathan Pollard, left, arrives at a federal courthouse in New York with his wife, Esther, to check in at a probation office just hours after he was released from prison, November 20, 2015. (Ilana Gold/WCBS-TV via AP Images/via JTA)

Pollard’s determination to move to Israel comes despite his previous accusations that Israel had not done enough to secure his release and his bitterness over the way Israel abandoned him when he was caught.

His capture and his subsequent treatment — by Israel, which threw him out of its Washington embassy and into the arms of waiting FBI agents, and by the United States, which agreed to a plea bargain and then sentenced him with uncommon severity — left him deeply embittered.

He was caught in November 1985 and given a life sentence two years later. There was no trial. Pollard, abiding by the prosecution’s terms, cooperated with FBI investigators and pleaded guilty to one count of espionage, conspiring to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. The prosecution honored its commitment and requested a “substantial” prison term rather than life behind bars. Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr., not bound by the prosecution’s plea bargain and apparently swayed by secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger’s damage-assessment brief, nonetheless sentenced Pollard to life.

The content of Weinberger’s memo remains classified to this day.

Jonathan Pollard’s US Navy ID photo (Wikipedia)

For the first 11 years of his incarceration, Israel refused to acknowledge that Pollard had operated as an authorized spy. He was not granted Israeli citizenship until November 1995.

After his release in November 2015, Pollard was given a five-year probation period, during which he was not allowed to travel outside the United States. The parole terms also required him to stay in his New York home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., to submit any computer he uses for inspection, and to wear a GPS monitoring device at all times.

The 66-year-old was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 and has repeatedly expressed his desire to settle in the Jewish state with his family.

In 2017, a US federal appeals court rejected Pollard’s request to lift his parole conditions.

In November 2018, Channel 12 reported the US Justice Department had refused a formal request by Israel to allow Pollard to emigrate. Netanyahu was also said to have asked Trump to let Pollard move to Israel.

According to the New York Times, in 1998, as president Bill Clinton presided over Middle East peace talks, CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if Clinton bowed to Israeli pressure to include Pollard’s release in any peace deal.

“It’s going to be pretty damn annoying if this traitor gets a celebratory heroes welcome in Tel Aviv. If Israelis are smart, this is done very low key,” former CIA case officer Marc Polymeropoulos tweeted Friday.

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