The real reason Jewish-American spy Jonathan Pollard is back in the news

Pollard is scheduled to be released in November. The issue for Israel is whether the U.S. will allow the Jewish American to move to Israel, where Washington fears he would be given a hero’s welcome.

Illustrative photo by
Illustrative photo by

The 30-year saga of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is once again gaining serious attention in the Israeli, American and international news media.

The reporting, most of which appears to be directed speculation, is focusing on whether Pollard will be released in late November or sooner, and whether a decision in Washington to release him early could be part of some sort of quid pro quo aimed at convincing Israel to drop its opposition to the Iran deal.

Nearly all of the news coverage has missed the real issue at play.

First things first. In all likelihood the former U.S. Naval Intelligence worker will be released by the end of November, and that has been public knowledge for decades. The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ public website lists his release date as November 21, 2015.

The public campaign to release Jonathan Pollard, spearheaded by his wife Esther and fueled by a handful of friendly Israeli journalists and a cadre of Jewish politicians, despises any mention of the November 2015 release date. They understand that the very concept of scheduled parole undermines their argument for early release, and so they deflect.

Notice how Esther Pollard and the entire Justice for Jonathan Pollard have been conspicuously absent from the recent flurry of media coverage, save, perhaps, for some behind-the-scenes pushing of the early release angle. The reasons for this are relatively simple.

In addition to seeing Pollard freed, many of his backers in Israel want nothing more than for Jonathan to receive a hero’s welcome when he walks onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport. Nearly every Jewish politician and public figure in Israel will want to take part; Pollard’s means easy public relations points.

The problem here is that parole in the United States generally involves restrictions on the parolee, including their freedom of movement – and particularly restrictions on travelling outside of the United States. In other words, the chances of Pollard being allowed to visit – or move to – Israel in the years following his parole are slim to none. If the United States releases Pollard but doesn’t allow him to emigrate, it would deflate the political significance of his release as far as most Israelis are concerned.

Jonathan Pollard (US Naval Intelligence ID photo)
Jonathan Pollard (US Naval Intelligence ID photo)

This is where talk of his early release comes into play. If President Obama grants clemency to Pollard just weeks ahead of his scheduled release, it would be as insulting both as a goodwill gesture and in any proposed quid pro quo. The Israeli government often attempts to do the same thing with Palestinian prisoner releases – include prisoners who are scheduled to be released soon anyway.

What is in play for Pollard and his backers in Israel is that the restrictions on parolees don’t necessarily apply to somebody who has been granted clemency. There is a good chance that if he is granted clemency he will be able to immigrate to Israel, where he will be treated as a hero instead of a traitor – and of course, where he will be able to join his second wife (a Canadian immigrant to Israel), with whom he has never spent one free day.

So what is behind the current media frenzy? First off, the Pollard case has always been given prominent coverage in the press, both in the United States and Israel. It is an exciting and compelling story. It has elements of – albeit clumsy – spying, espionage among allies, dual loyalties, attempted connections to the peace process, top intelligence officials regularly weighing in, and in Israel, there is the conspicuously unapplied Prisoner of Zion title. It’s a good story, and it appears to be coming to an end. The media is simply doing its job.

Second, without a doubt, there are interested parties trying to change the course of the story by directing the way it is covered in the press. Politicians appear not to be playing any public role quite yet, and media coverage is a surefire way to force them to get them involved, at the very least by making them deny the story. Based on how the Israeli political system has treated the Pollard case, the chances that this will work are decent.

The emigration issue will be the most important part of the Pollard story from here on out. It is true that foreign spies are often sent back to their home countries, but more often than not, those types of deals take place as part of an exchange of spies who have been caught. But Jonathan Pollard was not a foreign spy. He was an American, born and raised, who committed espionage for a foreign country in exchange for money. It was only nine years after his imprisonment that Israel granted him citizenship. The chances of any sort of prisoner exchange at this point in time are virtually nonexistent.

And what about quid pro quo? There were serious negotiations, we are told, about including Pollard’s release as a sweetener encouraging Israel to extend its ambivalent participation in the failed John Kerry-led peace talks. Because of Pollard’s almost assured release in November, there would have to be another focus for any deal to be worth it for Israel. Using him as a negotiating tool would certainly focus on allowing him to move to Israel, not releasing him a few weeks early.

The problem there, however, is that it’s simply not worth it for Prime Minister Netanyahu. It may have been possible for the U.S. to use Pollard as a tool for compelling Netanyahu to stick it out a few more months in the peace talks because the cost was low. Netanyahu knows how to get out of peace talks when they get too serious. But at this moment in history, when the primary point of contention between Obama and Netanyahu is the Iranian nuclear deal, the stakes are simply too high for Bibi. To Netanyahu, Pollard simply isn’t worth the price for backing down on the one issue he has staked his entire professional career.

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