Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard was released from a US prison Friday after serving nearly 30 years for passing American secrets to Israel, in a move welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The decades-long punishment has been deemed disproportionate by the Jewish state, where Pollard is seen by some as a national hero.
Netanyahu, who has long pressed for Pollard’s release, said Friday that “after three long and difficult decades Jonathan is at last reunited with his family.”
“The people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan Pollard,” he said.
The sentence has been a major bone of contention between Israel and the United States, with successive US presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama refusing Pollard’s early release.
“As someone who raised Jonathan’s case for years with successive American presidents, I had long hoped this day would come,” Netanyahu said.
The 61-year-old was set free before dawn from a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, his main supporters’ group in Israel said. But he is barred from leaving the United States for five years.
A US court jailed Pollard, a Stanford University graduate and former US Navy intelligence analyst, for life in 1987 after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government.
Pollard’s release on parole comes almost 30 years to the day of his arrest on November 21, 1985.
Perception of Pollard, who was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, has evolved there over the years, with rightwing activists seeking to turn him into an icon.
In the United States, however, Pentagon and CIA officials are still reeling with anger from the classified defense documents that Pollard leaked.
In a sign of the case’s sensitivity, Netanyahu had asked his ministers to refrain from claiming a victory upon Pollard’s release, according to local media.
Pollard’s lawyers have shown similar discretion in recent days, refusing to give details of the prisoner’s plans once he is freed.
However they have said that he has given assurances that he has a job and a place to live in the New York area.
A spokesman for his Israeli supporters group had no immediate word on Pollard’s whereabouts after his release.
Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said returning Pollard to Israel is an issue “Netanyahu has regularly raised.”
“Again the president does not have any plans to alter the terms of his parole,” Rhodes said, speaking of Pollard.
– Stream of intelligence –
According to Pollard’s family, the former spy, who was born in Texas, wishes to settle in Israel with Esther Zeitz, a Canadian Jew involved in campaigning for his release and whom he married in prison.
The release allows Pollard, who became very religious behind bars, to observe the Jewish Sabbath which begins at sundown on Friday.
“May this Sabbath bring him much joy and peace that will continue in the years and decades ahead,” Netanyahu said.
Pollard’s involvement with spying began after he joined the US Navy, and eventually received sufficient security clearance to access Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information.
Pollard made contact in June 1984 with an Israeli colonel, Aviem Sella, who was pursuing graduate studies at New York University, and offered to provide him with classified information.
He soon began supplying a stream of intelligence to the Israelis, reportedly thousands of documents.
Pollard is also alleged to have passed classified information to South Africa, and to have given his then wife Anne documents on China for use in her personal business.
Washington later accused Pollard of causing considerable harm to US interests during the Cold War, although the full scope of his take has never been publicly disclosed.
He claimed only to have passed information vital to Israel’s security that had been withheld by the Americans, but security experts feared the information might have ended up in the hands of the Soviet Union, at the time Washington’s arch rival.
– Modern day affair? –
He told investigators he was asked to obtain US information on Arab nuclear programs and “Arab exotic weaponry,” a former top secret CIA document said.
Israel’s October 1985 raid on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s Tunis headquarters that killed some 60 people was planned with information from Pollard, according to CIA documents that were declassified in 2012.
His work also contributed to the Israeli assassination of the PLO’s second-in-command, Khalil al-Wazir, or Abu Jihad, in 1988.
The Pollard affair may go back to the 1980s, but some believe he is still being used as a pawn in modern-day affairs and that his release is a conciliatory gesture toward an Israeli government that was irked by the nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
Others, however, disagree
“The parole after 30 years was expected by many, even without the Iran deal. It may help the strained US-Israeli relations after the Iran deal, but I think this was not the decisive cause for the release,” Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University, told AFP.