US President Barack Obama on Thursday said he had no plans for “immediately” releasing an Israeli jailed for spying who has been in prison since 1985, saying he was guilty of “a very serious crime.”
“I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately,” he said in an exclusive interview with Israel’s private Channel 2 television, broadcast a week before the US leader arrives on a historic three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have both pledged to use the March 20 visit to ask Obama to free Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for espionage.
Supporters of Pollard say more than 150,000 Israelis have so far signed an online petition asking Obama to free him, sparking concerns at the White House that the visit could be marred by mass protests.
Pollard, a former US Navy analyst, passed thousands of secret documents about American spy activities in the Arab world to Israel between May 1984 and his arrest in November 1985.
He was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 and officially recognised by the Jewish state as an Israeli spy in 1998.
Israelis argue that Pollard’s punishment and the long-standing US refusal to reduce his sentence have been particularly harsh, given that he passed on information to a friendly nation.