Israel to Again Press for U.S. Release of Spy

Isabel Kershner - NY Times

JERUSALEM - The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, will officially and publicly appeal to President Obama in the coming days for the release of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American serving a

life term

in a North Carolina jail for spying for Israel, Mr. Netanyahu's office announced Tuesday.

A public request, as opposed to Israel's discreet, backroom efforts in the past, would constitute a new approach in the campaign for Mr. Pollard's release and an additional twist in a long and painful chapter in Israeli-American relations.

Mr. Pollard, a former United States Navy intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel, a close ally, has already spent 25 years in prison. Many American law enforcement and intelligence officials have opposed granting him clemency.

Mr. Pollard's supporters argue that his life sentence was disproportionate, that the information he passed to Israel can no longer harm American national security, and that his health is failing.

Mr. Netanyahu has tried in the past to trade Mr. Pollard for pliancy in Middle East peace-making, in the hope that the release of the spy would appease conservatives in the Israeli government. Mr. Netanyahu made Mr. Pollard's case a bargaining point with the Palestinians at the Wye Plantation talks in 1998.

Most recently, in September, Israeli officials tried to float a trade-off in which they would extend a temporary moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, a Palestinian condition for negotiations, in exchange for the release of Mr. Pollard.

There were no immediate signs that the White House would be swayed a new request for Mr. Pollard's freedom. "I am not aware that that's something that the president is looking at doing," said the press secretary, Robert Gibbs.

Mr. Pollard recently made a personal request for a public appeal for his release. The request was relayed in writing by Mr. Pollard's wife, Esther, who met with the prime minister on Monday. Mr. Netanyahu's office said he took the decision after a series of talks and contacts with senior administration officials in recent months.

Israel's willingness to go public represents a turnaround in what has been a complicated relationship. At first Israel disowned Mr. Pollard, saying that he was an actor in a rogue operation. But Mr. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, and Mr. Netanyahu, during his first term in office in the late 1990s, officially recognized Mr. Pollard as an Israeli agent.

"I intend to continue acting with determination for Pollard's release," Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Tuesday, "both because of the state of Israel's moral obligation to him and so that he might live with his family and restore himself to health after his prolonged incarceration."

Lawrence Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and who supports clemency for Mr. Pollard, accompanied Mrs. Pollard in the meeting with Mr. Netanyahu on Monday.

Mr. Korb told reporters here on Tuesday that he had told the prime minister that to "get the ball rolling," Mr. Netanyahu should ask for Mr. Pollard's release publicly and "not as a quid pro quo, but as a matter of justice."

In addition, Mr. Korb said, Israel should acknowledge that it was wrong to have recruited a spy against its closest ally, and that Israel is willing to cooperate fully with the Americans in order to bring the chapter to a close.

That, he suggested, might help some supporters of Mr. Pollard in the United States to come forward, who may otherwise fear being seen as disregarding national security.

Mr. Pollard, who worked for the navy as a civilian intelligence analyst, began spying for Israel after he approached an Israeli officer in the spring of 1984. He was arrested 18 months later.