Israeli drumbeat grows for Pollard’s release ahead of Obama visit

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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The never-ending Israeli campaign to free Jonathan Pollard has accelerated ahead of President Obama’s visit to Israel (AP Photo)

President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel later this month has led to a predictable torrent of calls to release the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. While the pleas for Pollard’s release largely emanate from the right of Israeli politics, centrist Zionist figures as well as a prominent former American official have joined the campaign.

Pollard is an Israeli citizen who has renounced his American citizenship. Since he was arrested in 1985–and convicted of spying for Israel in 1987–securing his release has been a major priority for Israeli officials and American Jewish organizations. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison for the crime of passing along information on Arab states, Pakistan and the Soviet Union to Israel, which were gathered from his work as a US naval intelligence analyst.

So far, the Israelis and American Jewish organizations have come up empty, but they’re engaging in another push because of Obama’s visit, which reportedly begins March 20. Pollard’s poor health has also fueled the calls for his release. But it remains unlikely that Obama will grant their wishes.

The renewed campaign to free Pollard comes two and a half months after the National Security Archives at George Washington University released new documents on the spy:

When Naval Investigative Service analyst Jonathan Pollard spied for Israel in 1984 and 1985, his Israeli handlers asked primarily for nuclear, military and technical information on the Arab states, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union – not on the United States – according to the newly-declassified CIA 1987 damage assessment of the Pollard case, published today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (

The damage assessment includes new details on the specific subjects and documents sought by Pollard’s Israeli handlers (pages 36-43), such as Syrian drones and central communications, Egyptian missile programs, and Soviet air defenses. The Israelis specifically asked for a signals intelligence manual that they needed to listen in on Soviet advisers in Syria. The document describes how Pollard’s handler, Joseph Yagur, told him to ignore a request, from Yagur’s boss, for U.S. “dirt” on senior Israeli officials and told Pollard that gathering such information would terminate the operation (page 38)

Member of Knesset (MK) Moshe Feiglin, who has frequently visited Pollard in prison in North Carolina, told supporters in Queens last month that he would boycott any Obama speech to the Knesset if Pollard was not released by the time he came. (Yesterday, Haaretz reported that Obama would not be speaking to the Knesset.) Feiglin, a far-right wing member of Likud, said that “if God forbid [Obama] will come without Pollard, he will speak to my empty chair, and I hope my chair will not be the only empty chair.”

Feiglin’s strident advocacy for Pollard was followed by USA Today giving space to Danny Danon, another Likud member who holds a seat in the Knesset, to advocate for Pollard’s release. “It is my hope that the president will use his upcoming trip not only to meet our political leaders, but to forge a bond with the people of Israel. The best way to do this is to finally pardon Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen convicted of spying for Israel, and allow him to come home to Israel ahead of the presidential visit in March,” wrote Danon last month. “Jonathan Pollard has been imprisoned for almost twenty eight years. It is now clear that in passing information to an American ally about dangerous nations that threatened Israel’s security, Pollard thought he was acting in the best interests of both nations.”

Yesterday, members of the Israeli Knesset discussed the Pollard case. “This is a very painful issue. Please God we will not have to have another discussion about how to secure Pollard’s freedom,” remarked Yuli Edelstein, another Likud member, according to Haaretz. “I believe that Israel made two mistakes in the case of Jonathan Pollard. It was a mistake to use him in the first place and it was a mistake that it took over a decade to admit that he was an Israeli agent.”

But it’s not only Likud stalwarts calling for Pollard’s release. Israeli President Shimon Peres has joined in on the action, as the Associated Press reports. Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say they will raise the Pollard issue with Obama when he arrives in Israel. Yair Lapid, Israel’s new kingmaker, has advocated for Pollard as well. A phone conversation with the convicted spy, arranged by Pollard’s wife, who is in Israel, reportedly made Lapid cry. Lapid added his name to a petition calling on Obama to release Pollard. Over 100,000 people have also signed the petition. Meretz has said it supports Pollard’s release, and a Labor member initiated the discussion on Pollar in the Knesset.

And besides American Jewish organizations, who have long called for Pollard’s release, former U.S. official Lawrence Korb is once again advocating for Pollard. Korb, who is a fellow at the Obama-connected Center for American Progress, has long been calling for Pollard’s release. His latest move was a trip to Israel, where he met with Israeli officials on the Pollard case. “He was not convicted of treason, and that, of course, is a key thing,” Korb told the Voice of America. “He pled guilty to furnishing classified information to an ally, which is different. Treason is if you furnish something to an enemy that can be used against you, and I think that’s a very important point.”

Still, others involved in prosecuting Pollard say he should not be released. “There wasn’t ever any doubt that he spied for Israel and caused some of the greatest damage to U.S. national security in the history of the country,” Joseph E. diGenova, a former attorney who was the chief prosecutor during the Pollard trial, told the Voice of America.

The White House has also given no indication it is ready to free Pollard. Asked during a press conference whether the Obama administration is considering commuting Pollard’s life sentence, Press Secretary Jay Carney simply answered: “No, our position has not changed.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have “bitterly resisted” any calls to free Pollard, according to the Washington Post.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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