There has been a flurry of press reports in Israel in recent days that a deal might be in the works to release the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from an American prison. The reports have been fueled by several factors, including the imminent release of dozens of Palestinians prisoners from Israeli jails and by revelations that the U.S. conducted extensive spying on Israel.
Despite the reports of a Pollard deal, however, 2013 drew to a close with Pollard still in jail and prospects for his immediate release dim. Pollard is entering his 29th year in prison despite a growing consensus that he should be released on both humanitarian and legal grounds.
Israel’s Channel 10 reported over the weekend that Secretary of State John Kerry offered to free Pollard if Israel goes ahead with the fourth and final phase of the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails scheduled for March. The TV report said that Kerry was speaking without the backing of President Barak Obama, but that he hoped to secure Obama’s approval for the plan.
Israel Radio had a variation on this report, saying that all Kerry agreed to do was “look into” the possibility of freeing Pollard but made no commitment to do so.
Even Pollard’s most ardent supporters were disbelieving. A spokesman for the Committee for the Release of Jonathan Pollard told the Jerusalem Post: “We are deeply concerned that this is yet another one of many attempts of this kind to cynically exploit his plight as a sweetener to encourage the Israeli public to swallow a bitter political pill without protest. Past experience has proven that once the bitter pill is swallowed, Pollard’s situation remains unchanged.”
It would seem that skepticism is warranted. There were reports of a deal on a Pollard release going back to 1998 when President Bill Clinton agreed in principle to release Pollard but was then overruled by the intelligence community. The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, was said to have threatened to quit if Pollard was let go.
There was another burst of reports about a release when President Barak Obama visited Israel in March 2013. Personal appeals were by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and by Gilad Shalit, the Israeli solider who himself had been released from Hamas custody in 2011 in a prisoner exchange.
Israel, which distanced itself from Pollard after his arrest in 1986, came to embrace him and make his release a priority. Israel granted Pollard Israeli citizenship in 1995.
Appeals for clemency from both Republican and Democratic presidents, from Reagan to Obama, have been rejected.
Another recent impetus for a Pollard release came after the National Security Agency revelations reported in December in The New York Times and based on secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The documents revealed that the U.S. spied on former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in 2008 and 2009. The reports brought charges of “hypocrisy” from Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset. Edelstein drew a direct line to Pollard.
“For 28 years, the U.S. administration has been preaching to Israel about the danger and the lack of trust that results from spying on allies and today it turns out the shoe is on the other foot,” Edelstein said. “There is no other way to characterize it other than hypocrisy.”
In the wake of the NSA revelations, 106 members of the Knesset signed an official request to Obama to free Pollard, the Times of Israel reported. “The Israeli Knesset is turning to the U.S. 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,” the Knesset letter said. “This humanitarian gesture is essential, and even necessary for Israel-U.S. relations at this time.”
Peres said that he would relay the letter from the Knesset to President Obama. Ynet news reported on Monday that Peres has committed to using the remainder of his time as president to work toward a Pollard release. Peres is expected to step down as president in July 2014.
If another year passes and Pollard is not pardoned by Obama in 2014, he will become eligible for parole in 2015 when he will be 61 years old. He will have spent more than half of his life in prison.