TIME Middle East

Israelis See Pollard as Hero and Hostage

Sentenced to life in 1987 for spying against the U.S., Jonathan Pollard may become a bargaining chip for U.S. in mediating continued peace talks now even more complicated after a meeting between top diplomats and leaders was called off

The “Free Pollard” signs go up whenever an American official visits Israel, lining the sidewalks on the motorcade route. When President Obama stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion International a year ago, one of the first things he heard was “Please free Pollard.” Two Cabinet ministers in the reception line buttonholed the guest of honor on behalf of the American imprisoned for spying for Israel, giving voice to a popular cause that until this week appeared hopeless.

Jonathan Pollard was a U.S. citizen when he was sentenced to life in 1987 for espionage, but he petitioned for Israeli citizenship while in prison, was granted it, and as the decades passed his incarceration gradually took on the qualities of a vigil. Held by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the Butner, N.C., Federal Correctional Complex, Pollard was invoked among Israelis in the terms of a captured pilot held by Hizballah in an unknown location — that is, as a hostage. Now it appears that the Obama Administration may be bargaining the terms of his release in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Millions of Israelis would celebrate his release and inevitable arrival in Israel.

Pollard was not working for Mossad when he handed secret U.S. Navy documents to his Israeli handler. He was an agent in a brand new branch of Israeli intelligence, dubbed the Bureau of Scientific Relations and run by a former Mossad agent named Rafi Eitan. But Pollard’s capture was a traumatic event in relations between Israel and the U.S., offending Washington so deeply and obviously that Israeli officials solemnly foreswore any future intelligence operations inside U.S. borders.

By all accounts, the ban has held, even for a Mossad that regards as one of its most potent assets its reputation as omniscient puppet master — the hidden hand behind every unexplained event. Even amid reports that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on Israeli officials, “we are still extremely cautious on this issue,” Dov Weisglass, who was Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told me after the Edward Snowden leaks last fall. “We’re still licking our Pollard wounds very strongly.”

Within Israel, meanwhile, Pollard became a household name. His status moved from prisoner to captive to, as reports that his health was failing, potential martyr. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, on the slope below the holy high ground Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims know as the Haram al-Sharif, Jewish settlers dubbed their home Beit Yonatan, or House of Jonathan, in honor of Pollard.

The righteousness of his release became a matter of national consensus, endorsed by politicians ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the right to President Shimon Peres, who was Prime Minister when Pollard was recruited. On Monday, a leading Hebrew daily reported that Gilad Shalit, the former soldier held for five years by Hamas, had written Netanyahu urging Pollard’s release — noting his 29 years in prison is “five times longer than my period of captivity, and this is the United States, our great friend.”

And so the bargaining proceeds. Netanyahu freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. He agreed to release another 104 as part of the deal struck with Secretary of State John Kerry to commence the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The 104 would be released in four batches. In the three batches completed to date, 78 have walked free. But the talks are due to end on April 29, and absent an extension, Netanyahu has been reluctant to absorb the domestic criticism that will accompany release of the final group.

Winning freedom for Pollard, however, would be at least as popular a move domestically for Netanyahu as the 104 were for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or the 1,027 were for Hamas. And domestic politics appears to be what the peace talks are actually about — precious little negotiating actually having gone on. The fly in the ointment, at least by some reports, is that the U.S. may make Netanyahu pay a premium for Pollard’s release, obtaining a freeze in the expansion of the Jewish settlements that Palestinians complain are gobbling up much of the West Bank that they hope will become home for their state.

That would explain why Uri Ariel, the minister who told Obama “Please free Pollard” was backtracking on Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday. Ariel is in the staunchly pro-settler Jewish Home party; his portfolio is housing. He called it “abuse of a man who is ill” to make Pollard’s release a bargaining point in peace talks. “I was told by people close to him,” Ariel said, “that he is personally opposed to being part of such a shameful deal.”

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