Jonathan Pollard, the civilian American naval intelligence analyst who was sentenced to a life prison term in 1987 for passing classified material to an ally, Israel, will be released from jail on November 21, after having served 30 years: the statutory requirements of “a life term.” But rather than signaling a close to one of the most difficult and disturbing chapters in US-Israeli relations, Pollard’s ordeal will continue on for another five years and prevent Pollard from seeing the state that bestowed citizenship upon him during his incarceration unless President Obama can be convinced to commute the sentence to time already served. The White House has already said that would not happen.
The matter of Jonathan Pollard has been a contentious, if not consensus, issue within the Jewish community since the gates to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., were closed to Pollard as he sought refuge from federal agents pursuing him. Stunned by the sensational news that a Jewish American was alleged to have spied against the United States and fearing embarrassing – and indeed, dangerous – suggestions of dual loyalties, the Jewish community offered little solace or support to Pollard or his family.
Nevertheless, public support began to develop for Pollard as many were concerned and perplexed by the severity of the sentence – life with no parole – when compared to others sentenced for similar violations. Periodically, Pollard would surface as a piece of a diplomatic puzzle with rumors of his release triggering angry responses and threats from the intelligence community.
Ironically, Pollard’s impending release comes at a time when relations between the incumbent American and Israeli administrations are strained and the over-riding issue of the Iranian nuclear deal is in the forefront. Through that lens, the Pollard release is being tainted with political overtones to which neither government admits.
But for those who support Pollard’s release on humanitarian grounds given the time served and his deteriorating physical condition, enforcing the five-year probation seems to be needlessly cruel. During his incarceration, Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship and has spoken of his intent to live there, plans that would be thwarted for another five years.
David Kirshenbaum, an American-Israeli attorney who was formerly active in the campaign for Pollard’s release, told The Media Line that any joy at the news was outdone by the aftertaste of Pollard’s confinement to the US for the next half decade. “They just threw the book at him completely and then after thirty years when they’ve got no choice (but to release him) they keep him for another five,” Kirshenbaum said, calling it “typical, more of the same” [from the US government].”
Despite the services performed and risks taken for the state of Israel – debate continues over whether he was used in a rogue or authorized operation – Pollard was given citizenship in 1995 and acknowledged as an agent only in 1998. Since that time, successive Israeli prime ministers have requested clemency for Pollard from their American counterparts while never denying his crime.
Kirshenbaum was adamant in his view as to why Pollard had served a far longer sentence in US custody than any other convicted spy and why he was now being prevented from travelling to Israel: “(There is) no other way to explain it – except anti-Semitism… The viciousness that followed the whole case – even up to this week you’ve got people like [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld saying 30 years is not enough.”
However, not every supporter of Pollard views the five year parole period as deliberate salt in the wound. “It’s my belief that anyone who is let out on parole has restrictions on travel, so it’s not discriminatory,” attorney Seymour Reich, who was one of the first prominent Jewish American leaders to call for Pollard’s release decades ago, told The Media Line. Pollard should have been released years earlier, under Bush or Clinton, Reich said, asserting that what the intelligence analyst had done was wrong but did not warrant thirty -years of imprisonment.
The White House’s decision not to grant executive clemency, which would revoke Pollard’s parole and allow him to travel to Israel immediately – was in Reich’s view simply President Obama “playing it by the book.” Pushing to have clemency enacted would imply that Pollard was being released early to soften the blow to Israel of the recent Iran nuclear deal, he explained. Pollard himself historically has always resisted rumored moves that would use him to free terrorists or present a moral equivalency he found unacceptable.
In Israel, there has been a mixed reaction to President Obama’s decision not to waive Pollard’s parole. Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, of the Likud party, told public radio that “the attitude of the United States…has been cruel. As there was no evidence that Pollard had harmed the US in anyway, he should have been freed years ago.”
Perhaps in part hesitant to further rock the already shaky state of US-Israel relations, other politicians were less keen on coming down from the fence. Nachman Shai, an opposition member of Israel’s parliament (Knesset) who chairs the Knesset lobby for Jonathan Pollard was unwilling to share his take on the issue of the five year parole. “I wouldn’t take a position on that…in this context it maybe not helpful,” he said. In fact, the chairman of the lobby for Pollard was unsure whether the subject of the committee’s efforts even wanted to emigrate at all. Shai told The Media Line that it was not at this point clear if Pollard wished to leave the United States. “Let him leave the prison,” Shai said, “and then see if he wants to come to Israel.”
Robert Swift researched and contributed to this article.