Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to meet Esther Pollard, the wife of Jonathan Pollard, Wednesday along with Effi Lahav, the head of the campaign to free the convicted spy, Israeli media reported.
“Obviously she’s thrilled, and Jonathan is thrilled for her,” Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s lawyers, told TIME. “She has led the campaign for many, many years, to keep up the case in the public eye, and it’s a wonderful thing that they’ll be together.”
Pollard, the former U.S. Naval Intelligence officer who was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life in prison in 1985, has been granted parole and will be released in November, according to the decision of the United States Parole Board.
The news of Pollard’s release was greeted with great joy by his various Israeli supporters, who have run a campaign both in Israel and in the US, arguing for his release and pleading his cause with various officials. Pollard will by law be required to stay in the US for five years during his parole, but his lawyers say President Barack Obama could grant him clemency, allowing him to travel abroad, and presumably, to relocate to Israel, where he was granted citizenship in 1995.
The decision to release Pollard after exactly 30 years behind bars comes at a palpable low-point in relations between Jerusalem and Washington over the Iran nuclear deal signed earlier this month. As Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have continually clashed on the merits of the deal, which the Israeli leader has decried as a “historic mistake,” the rumblings of Pollard’s release have been greeted here as one of several ways in which the Obama administration is trying to “sweeten” the bitter pill on Iran.
The week after the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was signed in Vienna, Defense Secretary Ashton Carton visited Israel to speak about strengthening security cooperation between the two countries. The visit came amid reports that the Obama administration would offer some kind of package to soften the blow of a deal that Israel adamantly opposes, along with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But Israeli officials said they weren’t prepared to discuss additional aid or “compensation,” and would instead focus on lobbying Congress not to pass the deal.
Whether coincidental or conceived, the timing of Pollard’s release is being read by many here as a sort of peace offering.
“As far as Israel’s leaders are concerned, the timing of the announcement unavoidably gives the liberation of Pollard the feel of a consolation prize – and a poor one at that,” writes Allison Kaplan Sommer, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz news site. “The move feels like a power play rather than any kind of grand gesture—an effort to dissuade Israel and its American supporters from applying maximum political pressure on the Iran deal out of gratitude—or even fear that the release could somehow be disrupted.”
US officials denied that the two issues were related. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday there was no connection between Pollard’s release andthe agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Alistair Baskey, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the timing had to do with the approaching end of a 30-year period during which Pollard was ineligible to be considered for parole.
“Mr. Pollard’s status will be determined by the United States Parole Commission according to standard procedures. There is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard’s status and foreign policy considerations,” said Baskey.
It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Pollard will receive a hero’s welcome if and when he arrives in Israel, as the spy scandal is viewed by the Israeli public as an embarrassment caused by senior intelligence officers who recruited Pollard to steal top secret American material. But many Israelis believe that Pollard’s sentence was unduly harsh, and they note that no other American was ever given a life sentence for passing classified information to a US ally.
Regardless, Netanyahu will likely be given credit by Israelis for having helped win Pollard’s freedom, a goal that successive Israeli prime ministers have sworn themselves dedicated to achieving but failed. “I have consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive US administrations,” Netanyahu said late Tuesday. “We are looking forward to his release.”
Pollard’s parole hearing on July 7 raised the likelihood that he would be paroled, and last week, Department of Justice officials told reporters that they would not object to Pollard’s release. Still, says Lauer, Pollard remained guarded about getting too enthusiastic.
“Over the 15 years that I’ve represented Jonathan, there have been many expected victories and until this one, we’ve had one disappointment after the other,” he says. “There was guarded waiting. His reaction was one of elation. It’s an incredibly emotional thing for him. It’s emotional for me, and I’m a lawyer.”
Lauer said it was yet unclear whether Pollard’s main goal would be to come to Israel once released.
“He’s American, he’s a patriotic American. He violated American law, and he served 30 years for doing so. And obviously he’s very attached to Israel as well,” Lauer added. “I think the parole commission will work out what kind of travel terms are permitted.”
With reporting by Karl Vick in New York