Pollard an Issue in Israel Campaign

January 18, 1999 - Sari Bashi - AP

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged his challenger in upcoming elections to do more to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, leading to accusations he was turning a sensitive nonpartisan matter into a campaign issue.

Netanyahu told reporters he was "saddened and disappointed," that opposition leader

Ehud Barak

had refused to sign a letter to President Clinton requesting the release of Pollard.

A former civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy, Pollard was convicted of espionage in 1985 for giving Israel tens of thousands of top-secret documents. He is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison.

Since then, every Israeli prime minister has requested clemency for Pollard.

"Jonathan Pollard acted on behalf of Israel on a mistaken mission that he never should have been sent to, but he served his time," Netanyahu told reporters before a meeting Monday with Pollard's Israeli attorney.

While insisting that Pollard's case was "not an issue for the elections," Netanyahu said, "Ehud Barak must sign this letter."

In the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Netanyahu wrote Clinton that "the unfortunate Pollard affair has driven a wedge between our peoples and governments. We believe it is time to put this unfortunate chapter behind us."

Barak accused Netanyahu of exploi ting the case to win points ahead of the May 17 election. Recent opinion polls show the two men running neck-and-neck.

Barak defended himself, telling Israel radio he has made private appeals to Clinton on Pollard's behalf.

"Netanyahu, unfortunately, is thinking only about the elections. If Pollard is released, it won't be as a result of the actions of this government but in spite of the damaging measures of the government and its leader," Barak said.

Ofir Pines, a lawmaker in Barak's Labor Party, said he would resign as chairman of a Knesset subcommittee on Pollard to protest Netanyahu's comments.

A request for Pollard's release in October nearly derailed a U.S.-brokered Mideast peace accord when Netanyahu reportedly linked his agreement to a clemency deal for Pollard. Under last-minute pressure, Clinton promised to review Pollard's case. However, top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, have advised against an early release.