(JTA) — Should the U.S. free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard later this year, many in Israel will celebrate the moment that they had hoped and fought for. What Pollard’s release won’t do, officials and analysts said, is make most Israelis feel any better about the nuclear deal with Iran.
The Wall Street Journal on Friday reported that Pollard, who was convicted in 1985 of sending classified information to Israel while working at the U.S. Department of Defense, could be released on or before his Nov. 21 parole hearing. The newspaper quoted U.S. officials as saying that they hoped the release would help smooth relations with Israel, though the White House and Israeli government have since denied that the two issues are linked.
Relations between Israel and the United States have been particularly fraught in recent weeks following the nuclear deal reached July 14 between Iran and the major powers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the deal’s most vocal opponents.
“It could be because there’s a desire to send a signal to the Israeli public or the Jewish community here that whatever the differences between the president and the prime minister, there are other issues that are simply not going to be affected by” the Iran deal, said Dennis Ross, a former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator.
But the notion that releasing Pollard would soften Israeli opposition to the nuclear agreement is “insulting,” said Zionist Union lawmaker Nachman Shai, who chairs the Knesset caucus to free Pollard.
“It’s an attempt to use his release, it seems, to advance other issues that don’t have to do with it, like the agreement with Iran,” said Shai, a member of the opposition in the Knesset. “It’s a wretched thought. It doesn’t take into account that you can’t buy the Israeli public with these tools. That won’t work. Israelis understand — they know it’s not connected.”
The Israeli government has not yet responded to the Wall Street Journal report. A senior Israeli official told JTA only that after years of campaigning for Pollard, “we’re hopeful that he’ll be released in November.”
Justice for Jonathan Pollard, an organization based in Israel and Canada that has been campaigning to release him, had no comment on the report.
“Regarding influencing relations between the U.S. and Israel — whether the personal relationship or the formal relationship between the two states — Pollard as an asset already lost his value,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies who has served as a senior official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “He might have had influence in that sense 10 or 15 years ago. After 30 years in the American prison, he has no significance in the relations.”
Pollard’s prospective release has been unsuccessfully used as a chit in U.S.-Israel relations at least twice, according to Israeli and international reports. President Bill Clinton reportedly offered Pollard’s release in 1998 in exchange for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. His release was again floated last year as part of a failed last-ditch effort to save Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
But while releasing Pollard may have helped soften right-wing opposition to a peace deal, it would not lessen opposition in Israel to the Iran deal, which has united both left- and right-wingers.
“You’ve had different Israeli governments, in the context of moving on peace, that saw the benefit of trying to diffuse right-wing opposition to certain moves,” Ross said. “This is something different because Iran is seen in existential terms, so I don’t think you can draw much of a connection between the two.”
In the three decades since Pollard, now 60, has been behind bars, campaigning for his release has become a rare consensus issue in Israel. In 2013, 100 of the 120 members of Israel’s Knesset signed a letter calling for his freedom. Ronen Bergman, an analyst who’s finishing a book on Israel’s intelligence agencies, said Israelis view Pollard like they would a prisoner of war.
“From his point of view, he was trying to help Israelis,” Bergman said. He was [put] in jail, so he’s a POW.”
Pollard’s release has gained urgency in Israel as he’s served more time, in part because his health has deteriorated. Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, told a conference of Israeli settlers last month that former Israeli President Shimon Peres, while in office, would raise Pollard’s case at the start of every meeting with President Barack Obama.
“In my opinion it’s an open wound between us and the Americans,” Oren told the conference. “I worked without end to free him. I’m sorry, and not proud to say, I didn’t succeed.”
For Pollard’s release to have any effect on Israeli attitudes toward America, Bergman said, the U.S. will have to make clear that they are releasing him as a special gesture, not just because he’s up for parole.
But Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, said that connecting Pollard’s freedom to disputes between the United States and Israel could make U.S. intelligence officials less inclined to endorse his release.
“From an American perspective, the man was convicted of treason,” Freilich said. “We’ve tried to link it to all sorts of issues over the years, and each time it was the U.S. intelligence community that stepped in and said no. They don’t want Israel to be compensated for a traitor.”