Jonathan Pollard may not be a name that raises many eyebrows among American lawmakers, but his has become a major cause for Israeli politicians in the run-up to U.S. President Barack Obama’s arrival in Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon. Pollard, who has been sitting in a U.S. prison since 1985, is serving a life sentence on charges of selling U.S. secrets to Israel while working for naval intelligence.
Several far-right Israeli Knesset members, including first-timer Moshe Feiglin of Likud and Ayelet Shaked, second-in-command of Bayit Yehudi -- a new party that is now in the ruling coalition -- have publicly demanded that Obama “bring Pollard with him” when he comes to Jerusalem. Feiglin even went so far as to threaten to walk out on Obama if Pollard was not accompanying the president when he arrived -- which may be why Obama isn't addressing the Knesset. Israel President Shimon Peres is expected to ask Obama to free Pollard personally at an official meeting the afternoon that Obama arrives.
Israel granted the jailed Pollard citizenship in 1995, and he subsequently renounced his American citizenship. He is up for parole in 2015 and could then be deported to Israel. Previous U.S. presidents, including Bill Clinton, have admitted that they came close to freeing him before being warned off by top advisers in the face of furious opposition. At the Wye River Conference in 1998, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put Pollard's freedom on the table as a condition for his agreeing to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The deal was scuttled when then-CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign if Clinton signed off on it.
The pro-Pollard force has gained steam in recent months, led by Pollard’s second wife Esther, who has been pushing her husband’s cause in Israel for years. (Pollard divorced his first wife, Anne, after she finished serving her prison sentence for helping him in his espionage efforts). Harvard Law professor and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz chimed in in his 1992 book “Chutzpah!” that the life sentence with which Pollard was slapped was “excessive.”
Excess might be relative: other modern Benedict Arnolds who were caught spying, mostly for the Soviet Union, were given similar life sentences. But some were treated with more leniency. In 1985, the same year Pollard was jailed, Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer and analyst, began selling U.S. secrets to Russia. He was caught in 1994 and given life without parole. Ronald Pelton, an NSA analyst, was convicted in 1986 of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. He was given three concurrent life sentences. Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent, was arrested in 2001 and also given life without parole; he had been spying for the USSR since 1979.
In 1990, Richard Miller was the first FBI agent to ever be convicted of spying; he was served 13 years in prison after having the sentence reduced from two consecutive life sentences plus 50 years. David Boone, an NSA analyst, sold documents to the Soviet Union between 1998 and 1991. He was arrested in 1998, and was sentenced in February 1999 to 24 years and four months.
One wannabe Pollard, Stewart Nozette, served 13 years in prison for attempting to sell classified documents to a man he thought was an Israeli Mossad agent, but turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
For now, it seems Pollard’s fate to remain locked up. Obama flat-out told Israel’s Channel 2 “I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately.”
Maya covers the U.N., Europe, and the Middle East for IBTimes. She joined the company in July 2012 after having previously worked with DNAinfo.com and Gawker.