Talk has been swirling around Washington and Israel since Monday of the possible release of spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in the U.S. for spying for Israel. According to U.S. and Israeli officials, he may be released as part of an effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks, with the Israeli government agreeing to freeze settlement building and free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his return.
While this may seem like a glimmer of hope for a 59-year-old man who has served nearly three decades in prison, there may be a problem with the plan: Pollard himself, International Business Times has learned, may not want to be released under these conditions.
Morton Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, the oldest Zionist group in the country, has spoken to Pollard more than 50 times over the phone in the course of his detention.
During these conversations, which took place until several years ago, Klein said Pollard made multiple unsolicited remarks concerning any concessions made by the Israelis to grant his early release. “He said to me several times, not only once, he said, ‘Mort, please tell the Israeli officials, I know you know most of them, not to make any concession of land or any freezing of building Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria in order to gain my release.’ That is what he said to me several times. Unrequested. He said that on his own,” Klein told the International Business Times.
Judea and Samaria are the terms used by supporters of the Jewish settler movement for the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Pollard, an American Jew, began working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy in 1979, and was recruited by an Israeli intelligence officer five years later. Pollard passed tens of thousands of secret documents to Israeli intelligence officers before he was arrested in 1985. Two years later he pleaded guilty to espionage and received a life sentence. In the 1990s, Israel granted him citizenship. He is eligible for parole in 2015.
According to officials with knowledge of the peace talks, Pollard could be released in exchange for certain concessions from the Israeli government which might include settlement freezes in the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners or an agreement to continue peace negotiations past the April 29 deadline.
Klein says what impressed him the most from numerous conversations with Pollard was his commitment to Israel rather than his own release.
“The vast bulk of the conversations was about Israel, how we can help Israel, what Israel needs to do to protect itself. He almost never talked about what I have to do to gain his release,” Klein says.
Klein described Pollard as “highly intelligent, extremely articulate,” comparing him to the late Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate scientist.
“I remember once he said to me with emotion in his voice, ‘Mort, I don’t want my legacy to be I was Jonathan Pollard the prisoner or the spy. There are so many things I want to do with my life,” Klein recalls.
Pollard’s early release has been debated between the United States and Israel for years. The U.S. has never acceded to requests from Israel, where Pollard is seen as a hero by many, to send him there. Top U.S. military and intelligence officials have vociferously opposed his release in the past.
Pollard’s release would be a major gain for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has personally campaigned for his release. In 1998, he admitted Pollard was working for the Israeli government, a fact that had been previously denied. In 2002, when Netanyahu was not in office, he visited Pollard in prison.
While Israel and the U.S. are allies, many in the U.S. intelligence community are opposed to Pollard’s early release. They point to the possibility that the intelligence he shared had stronger ramifications than previously claimed. An article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in 1999 says the intelligence Pollard supplied may have ended up in the Soviet Union. Other intelligence officials charge that Pollard shared information with three other countries before working with Israel.
For former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, granting Pollard an early release would send the wrong message.
“If you betray your country, your security clearance, you can’t grant amnesty on that for any reason,” he told International Business Times.
Gilmore, who served in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer in the 1970s, says the crimes Pollard committed are unpardonable.
“You can’t go back in any way and send the message that what he did is forgivable,” he said, adding that an early release would effectively be “trading the principle of the national security of the United States.”
The peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been delayed over an impasse in the release of Palestinian prisoners. While Pollard’s release isn’t certain, it was under discussion, a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
President Barack Obama would most likely have to grant Pollard clemency in order to get an early release. The other option would be for the White House to recommend his early release late next year when he becomes eligible for parole.
Norman Hayes, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral with 31 years serving in military intelligence, says the time is right for Pollard to be released, but not necessarily in a deal such as this.
“That is not how the game is played,” Hayes told International Business Times. “His release should not have ties with the release of Palestinian prisoners by the Israelis. It’s a different era and we have to deal in today’s reality.”