Why Israel kept quiet as 'hero' Pollard walked free

November 24, 2016 23:21

It was hardly the walk to freedom that people imagined. Jonathan Pollard, a celebrity in the eyes of many Israelis, left prison last Friday without a welcoming committee, without a crowd and, as his liberation happened under cover of darkness, without even being spotted by journalists.

For three decades, he had been imprisoned in North Carolina for passing military secrets to Israel while working as an intelligence analyst for the US Navy.

At first, Israel and Israelis tried to keep Mr Pollard and his case at arm's length. But 20 years ago, the government granted him Israeli citizenship, and, in recent years, attitudes among politicians and the public have come to range from pity over the length of his sentence to admiration and seeing him as a hero. Talking about Mr Pollard and calling for his early release became a vote-winner for Israeli politicians.

One may have expected dignitaries to be standing at the prison gates, and if not there, waiting to receive him in New York. But the government restrained itself, and apparently restrained other politicians who would have otherwise made the trip.

The last thing that Jerusalem needs, especially at the moment, is an Israeli homage to a convicted spy on US soil.

The restraint extended to the comments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan Pollard," he said, without a smile. The most impassioned he got was to say that he had "longed" for this day.

Mr Netanyahu was on his best behaviour - and knew that he had to leave the more enthusiastic reaction to President Reuven Rivlin, who has an easier ride with the Americans.

After months at each others' throats, US President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to put their differences behind them during a meeting earlier this month. Mr Pollard's actions put great strain on the Israeli-US relationship, and there was no way that Mr Netanyahu was going to let his release spark further tensions. There were three other factors tempering Mr Netanyahu's joy. He could have scored a major PR victory if he had managed to convince the Americans to bring forward his release by even a few weeks, but in the end it was the US that decided on the parole date.

Secondly, in the midst of terror attacks, Israel is not in the mood for celebration.

Thirdly, Mr Netanyahu, like many Israelis, is frustrated that Mr Pollard cannot make his desired move to Israel for at least five years, as well as by the fact that he is subject to other restrictions including electronic tagging. This means that the Pollard issue still has political capital to be squeezed out of it. Expect intense efforts by politicians to get permission for him to make aliyah before the five years are up.

Hebrew University sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi notes: "If he actually arrived in Israel it would be a big deal here, but the fact is, for now, that he's in New York with all the restrictions imaginable."

November 24, 2016 23:21

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