The campaign to secure the release of Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard gained unexpected impetus on Friday from the uproar over allegations of U.S. spying on Israeli leaders.
While senior members of his government lined up to blast the United States and demand Pollard’s freedom, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tried to defuse the situation on Sunday, saying that efforts to release Pollard were unrelated to the new spying disclosures.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud-Beiteinu) assailed American “hypocrisy” for refusing to free Pollard while the National Security Agency spied on the communications of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak during Operation Cast Lead, according to documents leaked to the media by Edward Snowden.
“For 28 years, the U.S. administration has been preaching to Israel about the danger and the lack of trust that results from spying on allies and today it turns out the shoe is on the other foot,” Edelstein said. “There is no other way to characterize it other than hypocrisy.”
“This is a serious case, and I hope this is the iceberg rather than the tip of the iceberg,” Edelstein said. “Otherwise, this case is liable to do damage to our relations with the U.S.”
“The United States is systematically spying against Israel’s political and security leadership,” declared Transport Minister Yisrael Katz.
“Pollard was arrested for much less,” Katz said. “I plan on proposing that Israel demand an American statement vowing to put an end to the surveillance and to immediately release Pollard in light of the most recent revelations.”
Since Pollard’s conviction, Israel has promised not to spy on the U.S., and ministers say it hasn’t, but as Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said, “I think we should expect the same treatment from the U.S.”
Tourism Minister Uzi Landau (Likud-Beiteinu) told reporters: “If there was ever a better time to bring Pollard here, it is now.”
Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, who heads the Knesset lobby for advancing Pollard’s release, said on Sunday that “It is inconceivable that while Pollard has been rotting in an American prison for decades for spying, which was considered an unforgivable crime by the American government, we are now informed that the U.S. has been spying against Israel, and this is just swept under the rug.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) told Israel Radio that he hopes the revelations will lead to new thinking by the Israeli government about how to bring Pollard home.
“There needs to be new thinking because the time has come,” Herzog said.
In the U.S., former deputy defense secretary Lawrence Korb said that the news of American spying on Israel makes Pollard’s continued incarceration for spying for Israel “completely absurd,” Yisrael Hayom reported. Korb is one of the numerous senior American officials who have called for Pollard’s immediate release.
Korb said that by commuting Pollard’s life sentence President Barack Obama would “remove the moral embarrassment.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel didn’t need “any special occasion” in order to speak on Pollard’s behalf in Washington.
He said he had repeatedly raised the issue at the White House and hoped “circumstances arise that will enable us to bring Jonathan home.”
“This does not depend on and is not linked to the latest events,” Netanyahu added, though making no direct reference to the leaked documents.
While indignation ran high with regard to the injustice to Pollard, the spying revelations themselves could not have been very surprising.
Nachman Shai, a member of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, which deals with intelligence matters, did call for an urgent briefing on the reported spying, a “full report about what we know, what we have done, and just to find out.”
But senior Israeli officials are known to work on the assumption that they are being monitored. Officials use special secure lines for certain types of communications, and for the most sensitive matters, issues are discussed only face to face in secure rooms.
Steinitz described the alleged espionage as “unacceptable” but he also said Israel had always assumed that even its allies spied on it.
Amir Dan, a spokesman for Olmert, downplayed the reports in comments to The Associated Press, saying that if accurate, they referred to a public email address and it was extremely unlikely that any security or intelligence damage had been caused by the eavesdropping.
Barak could not immediately be reached for comment.
Veteran columnist Dan Margalit wrote in Yisrael Hayom on Sunday that “even before Snowden’s revelations, millions of people around the world just assumed America was always listening. Certainly listening in on Israel. Politicians spoke amongst themselves in a way that presumed an American ‘Big Brother’ was watching.
“As a result, many politicians have exercised caution. Some were not careful enough because the desire to speak is greater than the will power to hold back. Still others did not care…It is reasonable to assume that [some] even planted information intended to divert American surveillance.”
The furor comes during the time of the year when U.S. presidents traditionally review criminal cases and grant pardons and commutations.
President Barack Obama granted clemency in 21 cases over the weekend, most of them to convicted drug dealers and thieves.
Despite a recent request from his close ally and former cabinet member Bill Richardson, who noted that nearly all those with first-hand knowledge of Pollard’s case, including himself, now support his release. “Virtually everyone who was in a high position of government — and dealt with the ramifications of what Pollard did at the time — now support his release.”
However, Obama did not respond to Richardson’s plea, and Jonathan Pollard’s name was not on the list.