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Netanyahu to make formal request for convicted spy's release

By Izzy Lemberg, CNN
An Israeli youth demonstrator holds a picture of Jonathan Pollard, jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the U.S.
An Israeli youth demonstrator holds a picture of Jonathan Pollard, jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the U.S.
  • Pollard has served 25 years of his sentence
  • Netanyahu will appeal to Obama for release
  • Lawrence Korb is working for Pollard's release

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday agreed to formally request the release of convicted U.S. spy Jonathan Pollard.

This comes a day after Netanyahu received a hand-delivered letter pleading for help from Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment.

He has already served 25 years of his sentence.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today decided to accede to Jonathan Pollard's personal request and will, in the coming days, officially and publicly appeal to U.S. President Barack Obama regarding Pollard's release," the prime minister's statement said.

The decision to accede to the request was made following a series of talks and contacts that Netanyahu and his representatives have held on the issue in recent months with senior U.S. administration officials

"I intend to continue acting with determination for Pollard's release, both because of the State of Israel's moral obligation to him and so that he might live with his family and restore himself to health after his prolonged incarceration," the prime minister said.

On Monday Lawrence Korb, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense in the 1980s, came to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, to urge Israel to take a more pro-active and open campaign for Pollard's release.

Korb had been working under Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger during Pollard's arrest and was privy to the internal goings-on at the Pentagon. He believes now that Pollard was treated unfairly by getting a too harsh a sentence for his crime.

"Jonathan Pollard made a deal with the prosecutors: they agreed if he cooperates, which he did, he would not get life in prison," Korb said. "He did cooperate, but he got life in prison and the question really is why?"

Korb explained that "the victim impact statement" which was given at the time by Weinberger was painted in harsh terms suggesting that the information Pollard gave the Israelis wound up in the hands of the Soviet Union. This was in the days of the Cold War.

At the time other espionage arrests had been made involving American military, CIA and FBI officials who had sold secrets to the Soviet Union. There were American agents based in the Soviet Union who had been compromised and were executed by the Russians.

Later it was concluded that the deaths of American agents was not a result of material Pollard had stolen and given to the Israelis but a result of the other arrests.

"We found out later that the secretary's statement was really exaggerated, and he himself, before he died in 2004, said in retrospect the Pollard affair was a comparatively minor matter, but at the time we did not know it," Korb said.

He went on to say that Netanyahu should be doing more for the imprisoned spy.

"He needs to publicly ask for clemency for Jonathan Pollard and in his asking for it he has to make it clear that the Israeli government and the Israeli people admit that what they did was wrong by recruiting an American to spy on his own country," said Korb, "and they must be willing to work with the American intelligence community to go over whatever information they have."

Netanyahu was not present for Korb's remarks, but Korb and Esther Pollard, the wife of Jonathan Pollard, did meet with the prime minister in his office at the Knesset.

After the meeting, Esther Pollard read a letter that was written by her husband that she hand delivered to Netanyahu.

In the letter Jonathan Pollard writes to Netanyahu, "I hereby request that you submit an official request for my release to the President of the United States now, without any further delay and that concurrently you announce this request publicly, and that you follow up immediately with whatever actions is needed to implement this request. I am willing to bear a risk of any consequence that may result in taking this action."

Every Israeli prime minister since Pollard's imprisonment has asked the United States for clemency. Netanyahu had even visited Pollard in prison in 2002 as a private citizen.

Yossi Melman, who writes about intelligence matters for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz told CNN that Israelis feel badly about the entire affair.

"There is a general guilt feeling in Israel that it was a stupid operation, that it was wrong despite the temptation because of his access to information, to recruit an American to spy against his own country," but he went on "it is about time to release him because he has been there for 25 years, enough is enough. He paid his debt to the American society."