Will Israeli spy's release help Obama and Netanyahu get along?

Jonathan Pollard granted parole
Jonathan Pollard granted parole


    Jonathan Pollard granted parole


Jonathan Pollard granted parole 02:02

Story highlights

  • The upcoming release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is unlikely to change relations between Obama and Netanyahu.
  • His case caused a major rift between Israel and the U.S., which felt betrayed by Jerusalem's willingness to steal secrets from its closest ally.

Washington (CNN)The upcoming release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard after 30 years in prison hardly seems coincidental. Relations between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are strained, and Netanyahu has been one of the most vocal critics of the deal that the U.S. recently made with Tehran to curb Iran's nuclear program. The release of Pollard, a name that has been a fixture in Israel for the decades that he has been in prison, could be seen as a way of improving relations between the two leaders, especially after years of lobbying from Netanyahu.

But if that is the intent -- and, so far, Pollard's lawyers, Israeli leaders, and American officials have all denied that -- then it is unlikely to change relations between Obama and Netanyahu in any significant way.
"It's a very strong public issue and it's quite emotive. As public diplomacy goes it's a very strong gesture," said Middle East expert Natan Sachs of Pollard's release. But when it comes to the feelings of Netanyahu and the Israeli public on the Iran deal, he continued, "Iran is much more important to him and Israelis than Pollard."
    Netanyahu, whose long history of discord with Obama reached its apex in March when he lobbied Congress against the Iran deal over the objections of the White House, has warned that the agreement paves the path to an Iranian bomb.
    "He genuinely thinks it's terrible and should be defeated. That's the goal," said Sachs, a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy.
    However, Congress is due to finish its review of the deal and vote on it in September. If that process gets completed, by November -- when Pollard will go free -- Netanyahu's calculations might be different.
    "If Netanyahu wanted to climb down from the tree, if he wanted to make amends with the U.S., the Pollard ... release would be a great way to do it," Sachs said.

    Who is Jonathan Pollard?

    On Nov. 21, 1985, Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen employed at the Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office, was arrested outside the Israeli embassy for spying on behalf of the Israelis for more than a year. He pleaded guilty to passing on information about Arab countries and was sentenced to life in prison. He is the only person in U.S. history ever sentenced to life in prison for spying on behalf of an American ally.
    His case caused a major rift between Israel and the United States, which felt betrayed by Jerusalem's willingness to steal secrets from its closest ally. Many in the U.S. security apparatus continue to oppose Pollard's release to this day.
    At the same time, many American Jews felt that the treatment towards Pollard was unjust, since his sentence was more severe than many agents who gave information to enemy states. They also saw anti-Semitism in the suspicions of dual loyalty that confronted some of the other American Jews working for the U.S. government and the difficulty many had obtaining security clearances after Pollard's arrest.
    Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995, but it would take until 1998 for Israel to admit that Pollard was working as an agent. An Orthodox Jew, Pollard has said that he gave the secrets to Israel because he wanted to help the Jewish state and felt it was wrong that the U.S. would keep valuable information from an ally. However, it emerged that he earned $1500-$2500 a month for his spying.
    Who is Jonathan Pollard?
    Who is Jonathan Pollard?


      Who is Jonathan Pollard?


    Who is Jonathan Pollard? 02:50
    Sachs said that an intensive public campaign has kept Pollard's fate alive among Israelis and the American Jewish community. He said the campaign has portrayed the spy as someone sacrificing for Israel who was treated harshly by the U.S. justice system. The right wing in Israel in particular has embraced his cause.
    "Martyr is too strong a word, but he's perceived as a victim of what many Israelis perceive as America's heavy-headiness," according to Sachs.
    Gil Hoffman, a politic reporter and analyst with The Jerusalem Post who has written extensively about Pollard, described widespread support among the Israeli public for Pollard's release. He noted that a June 2014 petition for Pollard's release was signed by 106 of the Knesset's 120 members.
    "At a time when Obama is trying to prove that he's not anti-Israel after the Iran deal, there's no better way to show Israelis that he cares about Israel than allowing this Pollard release to happen," Hoffman said.
    But he agreed with Sachs that the goodwill generated by seeing Pollard go free wouldn't change Israeli attitudes when it comes to Iran.
    "If (President Obama) thinks this will help the Israelis be one ounce less opposed to the Iran deal, then he doesn't get it," Hoffman said. "Israelis are very against the Iran deal."

    Pollard's role in politics

    Throughout the years, successive Israeli prime ministers have asked for Pollard's release. Netanyahu has perhaps been the most diligent, saying in a statement Tuesday that, "After decades of effort, Jonathan Pollard will finally be released. Throughout his time in prison, I consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive U.S. administrations. We are looking forward to his release." In 2002, Netanyahu even visited Pollard in prison.
    At several points during his 30 years in prison, it seemed like he might be close to an early exit. In particular, his name has surfaced several times when the U.S. has been trying to push the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians along. The idea was that his release would help win over the right, which vehemently opposes concessions to the Palestinians.
    In 1998, President Bill Clinton seemed to be seriously considering agreeing to his release as part of the Wye River agreement he was trying to work out with Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister. But the then-CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard went free, and Clinton ultimately rejected including Pollard in any deal.
    After that, President George W. Bush's Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued against releasing Pollard. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, however, said that President Barack Obama "made it clear to me that he would not make any objections should the courts choose to release Jonathan."
    Obama also seemed close at points to releasing him early, in particular when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to salvage the peace process last year and the prisoner's release seemed like a bargaining chip that might keep the negotiations going forward. When the talks were scuttled, so was Pollard's chance at freedom.

    The process of Pollard's release

    In July 2014, Pollard was denied parole at his first parole hearing since his arrest. The Parole Commission first required a review of Pollard's record, according to his lawyers, to examine his record in prison and to determine whether he would pose a threat if released.
    This time, on July 1, 2015, Pollard's lawyers say the Department of Justice informed them that they would not oppose Pollard's release. Six days later, on July 7, the Parole Commission granted Pollard's parole, scheduling his release for November.
    Pollard said through his lawyers that he "is looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife Esther."
    Esther Pollard, speaking from her home in Israel, said, "I'm relieved and I'm happy that our ordeal is finally coming to an end. I can hardly wait, I'm counting the days, the hours, the minutes, the seconds until I can take him into my arms and we can close the door on past behind us and begin to heal and rebuild our lives."
    On Nov. 21, Pollard will be released from the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, on the 30th anniversary of his arrest.

    Is Pollard a political pawn?

    The timing of Pollard's parole immediately became the bigger story after the announcement. Was this meant to be one element in a compensation package from the U.S. to Israel over the Iran deal? Apparently not, though many were quick to draw a connection between the two events.
    Pollard's lawyers immediately denied any link between his release and Iran. "The decision to grant parole was made unanimously by the three members of the Parole Commission, who make their decisions independently of any other U.S. government agency. The decision is not connected to recent developments in the Middle East," said Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman in a joint statement.
    The White House also dismissed that there was a connection.
    "Mr. Pollard's status was determined by the United States Parole
    Commission according to standard procedures, and the Parole Commission's decision was in no way linked to foreign policy considerations," said National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey.
    The time at which Pollard is to be paroled -- 30 years into his sentence -- was actually laid out by the laws governing life imprisonment at the time he was sentenced. The laws, since changed, mandate parole after 30 years, with certain exceptions. Those include bad behavior on the part of the prisoner or a concern that he or she is likely to commit another crime. U.S. officials concluded that the government secrets Pollard may still possess don't pose a threat to U.S. national security.
    Attorney General Loretta Lynch also strongly rejected a tie between Pollard and Iran. At the Aspen Security Forum, moderated by ABC's Andrea Mitchell, Lynch said, "It would have been extremely far-thinking of people 30 years ago to sentence Mr. Pollard and set this mandatory release date to coincide with the Iran deal. And if they were able to pull that off, I would be quite impressed."
    In addition, despite Pollard's desire to go to Israel, where his wife is now living, there is no sign that the U.S. is going to facilitate that. To do so, he would need clemency from President Barack Obama, because the current terms of his early release do not allow for him to leave the country for five years. Yet in his statement, Baskey said, "the President has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard¹s parole."