Israeli Communications Minister Limor Livnat used her highly publicized visit to jailed spy Jonathan Pollard Wednesday to publicize the Israeli government's support for his release. Pollard used it to unequivocally reaffirm his remorse and confess that his actions were wrong.
"I am not a hero," Pollard said in a phone interview Tuesday with The Jewish Week from the federal prison in Butner, N.C. "I profoundly understand that what I did was wrong."
Livnat carried with her a letter from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- his first to Pollard -- in which he expressed the wish that "our continued efforts on your behalf will bear fruit and that you will be a free man in the near future."
Netanyahu said recently that he had raised Pollard's case three times in discussions with President Bill Clinton, who rejected Pollard's plea for clemency in July 1996. Clinton cited the gravity of the crime, his lack of remorse and the damage his actions caused to American security.
Pollard, a U.S. Navy civilian intelligence analyst, was arrested in 1985 and pleaded guilty a year later to stealing American secrets for Israel. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Netanyahu's diaspora affairs adviser, Bobby Brown, said in a phone interview from Jerusalem that the prime minister believes strongly that the "time for mercy has come." He said this belief is increasing among the Israeli public and the government. Just last week, the Knesset passed a motion calling for Pollard's release.
"The feeling throughout Israel is that we should do whatever we can to try to help bring about the American decision to free him," said Brown. "There is a growing concern for his health and mental well being. He has suffered greatly since his conviction."
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations expressed a similar opinion -- based on humanitarian grounds -- in a letter to Clinton last year.
"We have raised the issue in every meeting with administration officials," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group's executive vice chairman.
Livnat, who arrived in the United States Monday for a three-day visit, did not mention Pollard in her prepared remarks Tuesday to the Conference of Presidents. But in answer to a question, she said that "although we believe it was a rogue operation, after 12 years enough is enough. The time is right to let him free. ..."
"He's an Israeli citizen and he suffers so much in jail. It is my responsibility to visit him and strengthen him and try to convince America that the time is right to send him home to Israel."
She did not say how she planned to press the Clinton administration for Pollard's release and her spokesman said she had no plans to visit or write to Clinton. But she did bring with her a television crew and photographers. Livnat also carried with her letters from Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman and Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai.
In his letter, Yishai told Pollard: "You deserve to be pardoned, to immigrate to Israel, the beloved land whose security you worked for with such divine devotion."
Livnat, who was elected to the Knesset in 1992, said she was first visiting Pollard now because until recently American authorities had not permitted it. Just a few weeks ago, Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein became the first Israeli minister to visit Pollard.
Pollard told The Jewish Week that he was not aware of any previous ban on Israeli ministers visiting him. And he took exception to Livnat's assertion that he had carried out a "rogue operation," saying there are documents that prove he was an Israeli agent. In recent weeks, Pollard's lawyers asked Israel's supreme court to release the documents.
"I thought she was coming here to inform the American Jewish establishment that the time was now appropriate and necessary for them to stand by Israel to help facilitate my repatriation," he said. "I thought she was coming here in recognition of the truth and not in order to obscure it and throw out old propaganda and excuses concerning my legitimacy as an agent. The High Court of Justice facilitated my citizenship in November 1996 based exclusively on the fact that I had been an agent of the state. It was a legitimate operation, not a rogue one."
Sources in the defense and intelligence communities in Washington have consistently been opposed to commuting Pollard's sentence because he has not convincingly said that his actions were inexcusable, wrong and unjustified. Told of those concerns, Pollard said he was "scared for Israel's security and I felt I had to do something to defend her. This was wrong, flat out wrong."
Minutes later, he called back with the following statement:
"I know now that I should have done whatever was necessary to find a legal way of acting on my concern for Israel's security. I profoundly understand that what I did was absolutely wrong. I have paid a terrible price for that mistake, one that I can only hope others have recognized as well. I am not a hero. I am not someone to be emulated. I'm somebody who made a mistake and am trying desperately now to make sure that no one else follows me."