Israeli politicians warn about 'Pollard festival' in celebration of Israeli spy

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom warn that public expressions of joy over the expected immigration to Israel of ex-spy Jonathan Pollard could damage bilateral ties with the United States.

al-monitor Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel, leaves a New York courthouse following his release from prison early after 30 years on Nov. 20, 2015, in New York, New York. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Afif Abu Much

Afif Abu Much

@AfifAbuMuch

Topics covered

knesset, state of israel, restrictions, spying, new york, benjamin netanyahu, ehud olmert, jonathan pollard

Nov 30, 2020

Five years after his release from prison, the US Justice Department has decided not to extend the parole it imposed on Jonathan Pollard. What this means in practice is that it lifted the restrictions on the Jewish American, who spent 30 years in prison after being convicted in 1985 of spying for Israel. Pollard can now leave the United States and immigrate to Israel. Ever since his release from prison in November 1985, Pollard has been under harsh restrictions, requiring him to wear an electronic surveillance device at all times and remain in his house at night. Furthermore, he was not allowed to give any interviews to the press or even leave New York.

Following the Justice Department’s announcement, Pollard released a statement, along with a photo of him cutting off the electronic bracelet that he has been required to wear since his release five years ago. In it, he said, “Thirty years ago, my beloved wife Esther found her way into USP Marion, the highest security prison in the United States, where I was languishing in a dungeon cell three stories underground behind 13 locks and keys. Esther reached out and cut the shackles off of my heart and restored my soul to my life. That is when the fight for my freedom began in earnest (with full authorization from the parole office).”

Anyone who has followed the Pollard case, culminating in his arrest and sentencing, cannot ignore the outrage felt by the heads of the various US espionage agencies that a Jewish citizen of the United States would dare spy for Israel, a country otherwise considered an especially close ally. They wanted to put him in his place. Of course, there were some senior American officials who argued through the years that Pollard’s punishment was excessive. One of these was Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense when Pollard was arrested. This week, Korb told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that “Israel should have apologized, and Pollard should have gotten seven to 10 years. This was a case of vindictiveness, more than it was about justice.” On the other hand, Korb has reservations about how Pollard became a hero in Israel: “When I visited Israel, I was shocked to see the level of support for him. I certainly believe that he deserves a nice reception. Give him a decent pension, but don’t make a hero out of him. He is not a hero."

In Israel, gratitude over the lifting of these restrictions was forthcoming. Among those who congratulated the Justice Department for its decision were President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rivlin's message to Pollard was “We’re waiting for you at home.” Netanyahu spoke with Pollard by phone, saying, “We are waiting for you, even during the coronavirus, with open arms. You will receive from us the genuine embrace of the people of Israel. I want to congratulate you both that this nightmare is over and you will be able to return home to Israel.” There is no doubt that Netanyahu recognizes the enormous political benefits he stands to reap from the lifting of restrictions on Pollard. After all, Pollard is considered a hero to certain Israelis identified with the political right. That is why Netanyahu is so eager to embrace Pollard and invite him to settle in Israel.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a different view. In a speech to the Maariv business summit, he said, “His spying was beneficial, but when taking a full account of his actions, the damage he caused to Israel’s interests was the harshest in the history of US-Israel relations. The danger of increasing this damage has not ended. If the prime minister hosts a lavish welcome ceremony for Pollard, we will pay a heavy price for it in America.”

Olmert expanded on this in an article for Maariv, saying, “[Pollard’s] decision to visit Israel or immigrate to Israel will, of necessity, involve events that could easily become a major international media festival. Public exploitation of the Pollard affair will provoke the US defense establishment. The consequences of such a provocation could be severe, especially given the change of administrations in the United States. Unlike the outgoing president with his particular style, [President-elect] Joe Biden could revert to the attitudes of the US defense establishment for the past 35 years. We can congratulate Pollard and share in his celebration, but we can also wait for him to come to Israel at some other time.”

The Pollard affair has long been a political issue in Israel. The right embraced him when Health Minister Yuli Edelstein became the first Israeli minister to visit him in prison 23 years ago. At the time, Edelstein was minister of Immigration and Absorption. Since then, Pollard was visited by quite a few Knesset members and ministers from the right. It should, therefore, come as no surprise if the Netanyahu government turns his immigration into a major celebration, even if it sours the government’s relationship with the new administration in Washington.

One person who has expressed reservations about any such celebrations or festivals is former Mossad chief Danny Yatom. He told Al-Monitor, “Pollard was not working for the Mossad, as is mistakenly claimed, but for another Israeli agency. … The punishment he received was much more severe than what the US justice system usually metes out in order to teach Israel a lesson. I am glad that he has finally been set free, and I think we should respect his desire to immigrate to Israel. On the other hand, we should not go overboard with all the festivals, not least because we don’t want to poke the US in the eye. On the other hand, we should receive him warmly.”

In reference to Netanyahu’s call to Pollard, Yatom said, “The State of Israel, and the Likud party in particular, adopted Pollard long ago. [Former Cabinet Secretary] Danny Naveh of the Likud even visited him in prison. This is all part of the same approach as calling him by phone. It is all to collect votes. Netanyahu sees this as being politically beneficial because he believes there are people on the right who think that what Pollard did helped Israel significantly.”

As for those people who consider Pollard a hero, Yatom added, “I don’t think he should be treated as a hero, because he spied on a very friendly country. A hero is someone who risks his life and spies in a hostile country. While it is true that he risked his freedom, as evidenced by the fact that he spent 30 years in prison, it is important to remember that he spied for money.”

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