Jonathan Pollard was so convinced Friday that he was about to be released from prison that he started packing his bags. His tallit and tefillin, too.
“I heard about it from [my wife] Esther when I called her at 7 in the morning,” said Pollard, referring to news reports that he would be set free as part of the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“When it first came out,” he said of the news reports, “everybody here was very happy for me. I’ve never shaken so many hands in my life. The guards, too, patted me on the back. The guards said, ‘You’re going home.’ ”
But it wasn’t to be for Pollard, 44, who remains in the federal prison in Butner, N.C. He is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty in 1987 to passing classified American intelligence secrets to Israel. At the time of his arrest in November 1985, Pollard was a civilian U.S. Navy intelligence officer with a high-level security clearance.
During the past 13 years, there have been other occasions when Pollard said his hopes had been raised about a possible release. But last week, he said, he actually believed it.
“I was packing; I thought this was it,” Pollard said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I packed my Chumash [Five Books of Moses], my tallit and tefillin and my wife’s pictures.
“Everybody was coming around my room asking for books, clothes, deodorant, food. Everybody was claiming things. That’s what happens in prisons.”
Pollard said his roommate, a Muslim, “embraced me and said, ‘Both our peoples are going home, isn’t it wonderful?’ ”
He was referring to the planned release of 750 Palestinian prisoners who were to be set free as part of the peace accord.
By the time Pollard went to work in the prison’s optical factory later that morning, he was elated, having “heard through my own channels that I would be leaving Saturday night and going to Israel with the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] on his plane.”
But he said the information puzzled him; Pollard had heard from sources he declined to name that he was to be released quietly 20 days after the Wye memorandum was signed. He said he was told that this promise — denied by the Clinton administration — was to be contained in a secret letter from President Bill Clinton to Netanyahu. The arrangement was made, said Pollard, in return for Netanyahu’s decision to drop his demand for the arrest of the Palestinian police chief, Rhazi Jabali, who is wanted in Israel for organizing terrorist attacks.
“I did not know what to believe and thought that since it [his release] was out in the open, they were accelerating this,” Pollard said. “I knew none of this was supposed to be known publicly. I felt that in my kishkes.”
He said that upon returning from work at about 3:30 p.m., “I realized something had gone wrong when nobody would look at me anymore. They all looked apologetic.”
Pollard said he ran to the phone and called his wife in Toronto, and she broke the news that his release was not forthcoming. He said he was told Clinton had acceded to pressure from the CIA not to release him.
Asked if he or his wife cried when she told him the news, Pollard stiffened. “We don’t cry; neither she nor I,” he said.
Pollard acknowledged, however, that the crushing news did take a toll on him while he watched former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas “eviscerating me on ABC [Sunday]. The room started spinning, I got nauseous and broke into a cold sweat. My blood pressure shot up and I went and sat down at my desk and blacked out. My roommate said I was out for about a minute or two.”
Clinton administration officials deny that there had been any deal to release Pollard. They insist that while the Pollard issue was discussed during the negotiations, no deal was reached. Israeli officials, however, support some of Pollard’s account, saying a deal was reached in exchange for Jabali but that Clinton changed his mind after getting an earful from angry defense and intelligence officials.
On Monday, the White House reaffirmed what Clinton said at the conclusion of the Wye sessions — that the administration would conduct an open-ended investigation into the case for clemency, with no promises about the outcome.
The biggest obstacle to Pollard’s release appeared to be Republican congressional leaders, who this week wrote to Clinton asking that Pollard be kept in prison. Should he be released, they said, “there is every reason to believe, based on his own statements, that he would resume his treacherous conduct.”
Pollard vehemently denied that, saying: “I have given my word that I am remorseful and will do whatever I have to lead a constructive and honest life in the future.”
One congressional staffer who supports Pollard’s release said that although members of Congress might support commutation on humanitarian grounds, “They’re going to be very unhappy about doing it with a big public splash.”
Jewish leaders, too, expressed reservations.
“I am disturbed by this development,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Pollard is not an issue that should be part of a peace process. I’d like to see him freed as much as anybody else, but there’s something very uncomfortable about the way this happened last week.”
Netanyahu defended his decision to press for Pollard’s release because he was an Israeli agent. He told Israel’s army radio Monday: “Not only will I not apologize, I am proud that I stand up for him and I will continue to do so.
“The man worked for us and our security. He made a mistake. He should not have done what he did and Israel made a mistake by doing what it did against the United States. But he has been paying the price for 13 years and we need to get him out of there.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was to meet this week to review the letter it plans to send to Clinton asking that Pollard be released on humanitarian grounds.
Pollard said he had no plans to write another letter to Clinton but would if he believed it would help. He noted that he has written countless letters to Clinton expressing his remorse for his actions.
Esther Pollard said she was leaving Tuesday evening to fly to Israel to meet with Netanyahu and other government officials.
“We can’t keep flying blind,” she said. “There are things that can only be said face-to-face.”