Israel’s Nobel-laureate president, backed by thousands of followers, is leading an effort to press President Obama during his upcoming visit to free Jonathan Pollard, ending one of the most painful episodes between the two allies.
Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing classified material to Israel.
He is in poor health, and his case has become a rallying cry in Israel. Leaders routinely call for his release and say his 28 years in prison is excessive punishment.
Next month’s visit to Israel by Mr. Obama is raising hopes that Pollard, 58, finally may get his freedom.
More than 65,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling on Mr. Obama to free Pollard, the U.S. Embassy in Israel has been flooded with pardon requests, and a nationwide campaign began Tuesday urging Israeli President Shimon Peres to push for Pollard’s release. He quickly agreed.
In a video clip, Mr. Peres is shown receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Obama. The camera then pulls back, showing the wall of a prison cell with the following message: “Mr. President, please save me. J. Pollard.”
Speaking to high school students Tuesday, Mr. Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, said he would try.
“I intend to raise the issue of Jonathan Pollard during my meeting with President Obama,” he said. “[I] will do everything I can to convey this clear message: Jonathan Pollard must be released from prison on humanitarian grounds.”
Once a niche cause of the Israeli religious right wing, the call for Pollard’s freedom has now become a matter of consensus in Israel. A wide range of politicians, artists and Nobel Prize winners have embraced Pollard’s cause. The influential writers A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — leading voices of the Israeli peace camp — and former President Yitzhak Navon are among the prominent names backing the calls for his release.
“Both he (Pollard) and Israel have repeatedly expressed remorse. We have learned our lesson and have been living with the painful consequences for nearly three decades,” their petition reads. “It is our fervent hope and prayer that your upcoming trip to Israel will bring us the good news we have waited for, for so very long, and that this tragic and painful episode can finally be put to rest once and for all.” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he plans to honor Pollard with the Jerusalem Freedom Award, which represents “the goal of the Jewish people to be free in our land,” according to the municipality.
Advocates note that some of those convicted for spying for American enemies have served far shorter prison terms.
Pollard’s lawyer, Nitzana Darshan-Leitner said Pollard suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney stones.
“His medical condition is very precarious,” she said.
A recently declassified 1987 CIA damage assessment concluded that Pollard did not spy against America. According to the version published in December by the National Security Archive, a George Washington University project, Pollard cooperated “in good faith” while in custody, and his handlers’ requests were limited to intelligence on Pakistanis, Arab states and the Soviets.
Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, along with Lawrence Korb, the assistant secretary of defense at the time, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Sen. John McCain and former Vice President Dan Quayle have all called for Pollard’s release in recent years.
Pollard’s wife, Esther, said that given these developments and the passage of time, the moment was ripe for Mr. Obama “to right this injustice.”
“I pray that President Obama will respond without any further delay,” she said in an email message.
Peres’s comment came just days after another of Obama’s official hosts for the visit — Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, published a heartfelt letter adding his voice to what has become a nationwide Israeli appeal for Pollard’s freedom.
Rabbi Lau’s letter marks the first time in 28 years that he has taken a public position on Pollard’s on-going incarceration.
Rabbi Lau will have an opportunity to raise the Pollard issue face-to-face with Obama during the latter’s scheduled visit to Yad Vashem, where Rabbi Lau heads the board of directors. (With reporting by AP)