Bibi asks US to free Pollard. Why now?

By Nathan Jeffay, December 29, 2010
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For the first time since spy Jonathan Pollard started serving a life sentence for his espionage in 1987, Israel is formally calling for his freedom.

A US court found Pollard guilty of passing military secrets to Israel while working as an intelligence analyst for the US Navy. He is incarcerated at a federal jail in North Carolina.

While Israeli leaders have privately raised his case during discussions with their US counterparts on many occasions, there has been no formal request for his release. But just before Christmas, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to send one to US President Barack Obama.

And with this, Israel enters the next of many phases in the saga of Pollard.

Initially, after his conviction, officials denied any connection to him. Pollard was a rogue operation, they said. Then, in 1995, Israel awarded him citizenship - but without acknowledging that its intelligence chiefs were his spymasters.

It was Mr Netanyahu, in 1998 during his first stint as Prime Minister, who broke the taboo and claimed Pollard as an Israeli spy. Israel "acknowledges its obligation to Mr Pollard and is ready to accept full responsibility accordingly," his office said in a statement.

The Israeli pro-settler right-wing has rallied around his cause. It increasingly champions him as a national hero and expresses this using religious motifs. Ahead of Passover this year, activists produced and distributed a Pollard-themed haggadah focussed on his incarceration as well as the captivity of the ancient Israelites. Earlier this month, the prisoner's wife, Esther, suggested that the Carmel fire was a divinely-orchestrated expression of the pain felt by her husband and that its message was to work harder for his release.

In the past two months, the fight for Pollard has become well-established. All Jewish political parties - representing 109 of the Knesset's 120 members - signed a letter to Mr Obama asking for Pollard's release. Now Mr Netanyahu has taken up the cause, meaning it is both mainstream and official.

There are two conflicting ways of looking at Mr Netanyahu's move - aside from the simple interpretation that he had a sudden urge to act out of concern for Pollard.

One is that he has written off the peace process and wants another project that offers him the chance of a legacy - and some positive press. Another is that the Pollard issue could help to move along the peace process. His freedom could become a bargaining chip for Israel to comply with US demands like a settlement freeze or, if granted gratis, it could create goodwill in Israel towards Mr Obama and his plans.

    Last updated: 4:31pm, May 31 2011