A US citizen convicted of spying for Israel was let out of jail today (Nov. 20), ending what has long been a point of friction between the two allies.
Jonathan Pollard, now 61, was an intelligence analyst for the US navy when he was arrested in 1985. In 1987, the US sentenced him to life in prison for giving US secrets to Israel. Pollard’s imprisonment has since become a defining factor in the US-Israel relationship, with Israeli politicians and pro-Israel lobbying groups pressing for his release.
Pollard said in 1998 that he had “tried to serve two countries at the same time.”
The supporters who have lobbied for Pollard’s freedom argued that his sentence was too harsh, and that he had provided information critical to Israel’s national security. American intelligence agencies contend that Pollard’s actions were a “grievous betrayal” to US national security. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency threatened to resign when it emerged that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was asking Clinton to grant Pollard’s freedom as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
US president Barack Obama has had a prickly relationship with Netanyahu, and Pollard’s release was announced in July during a particularly tense period for US-Israeli relations, when the US signed a deal to end sanctions against Iran against strong objections from Israel. (Officially, American officials denied any link between the Iran deal talks and the decision to grant Pollard’s parole.)
At the time, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that intelligence agencies’ resistance to letting Pollard out had weakened substantially, “to the point where some in the agencies are willing to say that 30 years is punishment enough.” Under US law, federal prisoners serving life sentences are entitled to parole hearings after 30 years of imprisonment.
Pollard’s lawyers are now asking Obama to allow Pollard to move to Israel, which gave him citizenship in 1995 and where his wife lives. But administration officials say they will not bend federal parole rules, which stipulate that Pollard must stay in the US for five years after his last day in prison.
Pollard intends to live in New York for the foreseeable future, and was spotted in lower Manhattan this morning.