Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who has served 30 years of a life sentence for passing classified information to Israel, will be released Nov. 20 from a U.S. prison.
The Parole Board announced its decision on Tuesday after the Justice Department agreed not to oppose the release.
In Israel, many were expected to celebrate the moment that they had hoped and fought for.
What Pollard’s release won’t do, officials and analysts said, is make most Israelis feel any better about the nuclear deal with Iran.
The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that Pollard, who was as civilian Navy analyst when he was arrested in 1985, could be released on or before his Nov. 21 parole hearing. The newspaper quoted U.S. officials as saying that they hoped the release would help smooth relations with Israel, though the White House and Israeli government have since denied that the two issues are linked.
Relations between Israel and the United States have been particularly fraught in recent weeks following the nuclear deal reached July 14 between Iran and the major powers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the deal’s most vocal opponents.
“It could be because there’s a desire to send a signal to the Israeli public or the Jewish community here that whatever the differences between the president and the prime minister, there are other issues that are simply not going to be affected by” the Iran deal, said Dennis Ross, a former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator.
But the notion that releasing Pollard would soften Israeli opposition to the nuclear agreement is “insulting,” said Zionist Union lawmaker Nachman Shai, who chairs the Knesset caucus to free Pollard.
“It’s an attempt to use his release, it seems, to advance other issues that don’t have to do with it, like the agreement with Iran,” said Shai, a member of the opposition in the Knesset. “It’s a wretched thought. It doesn’t take into account that you can’t buy the Israeli public with these tools. That won’t work. Israelis understand — they know it’s not connected.”
Retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a longtime supporter of Pollard’s release, likewise is irritated by the thought of using Pollard’s release to send a signal.
“It’s an outrage that anyone would claim that releasing Jonathan Pollard now is doing a favor to anyone,” Dershowitz said. “He should have been released 20 years ago.”
The U.S. government violated its plea deal agreement with Pollard, he said. Under the agreement, Pollard pleaded guilty to save the government the exposure of a public trial. Prosecutors asked for a life term for Pollard, even though “it was in violation of the plea deal,” Dershowitz said.
“The government has been holding him as a bargaining chip,” he added.
“Regarding influencing relations between the U.S. and Israel — whether the personal relationship or the formal relationship between the two states — Pollard as an asset already lost his value,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies who has served as a senior official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “He might have had influence in that sense 10 or 15 years ago. After 30 years in the American prison, he has no significance in the relations.”
Pollard’s prospective release has been unsuccessfully used as a chit in U.S.-Israel relations at least twice, according to Israeli and international reports. President Bill Clinton reportedly offered Pollard’s release in 1998 in exchange for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. His release was again floated last year as part of a failed last-ditch effort to save Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
But while releasing Pollard may have helped soften right-wing opposition to a peace deal, it would not lessen opposition in Israel to the Iran deal, which has united both left- and right-wingers.
“You’ve had different Israeli governments, in the context of moving on peace, that saw the benefit of trying to diffuse right-wing opposition to certain moves,” Ross said. “This is something different because Iran is seen in existential terms, so I don’t think you can draw much of a connection between the two.”
In the three decades since Pollard, now 60, has been behind bars, campaigning for his release has become a rare consensus issue in Israel. In 2013, 100 of the 120 members of Israel’s Knesset signed a letter calling for his freedom. Ronen Bergman, an analyst who’s finishing a book on Israel’s intelligence agencies, said Israelis view Pollard like they would a prisoner of war.
“From his point of view, he was trying to help Israelis,” Bergman said. He was [put] in jail, so he’s a POW.”
Pollard’s release gained urgency in Israel as he served more time, in part because his health has deteriorated. Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, told a conference of Israeli settlers last month that former Israeli President Shimon Peres, while in office, would raise Pollard’s case at the start of every meeting with President Barack Obama.
“In my opinion, it’s an open wound between us and the Americans,” Oren told the conference. “I worked without end to free him. I’m sorry, and not proud to say, I didn’t succeed.”
For Pollard’s release to have any effect on Israeli attitudes toward America, Bergman said, the U.S. will have to make clear that they are releasing him as a special gesture, not just because he’s up for parole.
─JTA News and Features
The Chronicle’s Interim Editor Geoffrey W. Melada and Washington Jewish Week Senior Writer David Holzel contributed to this article.