With impeccable timing, a broadly representative group of Israeli Knesset members sent a joint letter to Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday and asked him to work to free confessed spy Jonathan Pollard from federal prison in honor of the Passover holiday and “as an expression of the good relations and friendship between our two peoples.” It was signed by party whips or representatives of eight of the nine Jewish parties in the Knesset
The letter came in the midst of a furious dispute between Israel and the United States, at a time when expressions of good relations and friendship between the two people are in short supply. Biden arrived in Israel for a highly publicized visit on Tuesday, and was confronted hours after landing with an announcement by Israel’s Interior Ministry that 1,600 new housing units had been approved in East Jerusalem. The approval flew in the face of repeated American insistence that Israel should halt all construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in order to facilitate renewed peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO had reluctantly agreed only a day earlier to indirect talks, despite Israel’s refusal to impose a full freeze, and announced after the housing announcement that the talks were canceled.
Pollard is a former civilian analyst in U.S. Naval Intelligence who was arrested in 1985 and sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for passing classified documents to Israel. He pleaded guilty in a 1986 plea agreement that was to have guaranteed leniency in return for full cooperation and expression of remorse, as well as other conditions. The long sentence has been a topic of controversy and protest ever since.
The letter to Biden was initiated by Knesset member Uri Ariel of the National Union party, who chairs the Knesset’s Free Pollard caucus. It was cosigned by eight lawmakers in the names of all but one of the Jewish parties in the Knesset: Party caucus chairs (whips) Dalia Itzik of Kadima, Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, Robert Ilutov of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avraham Michaeli of Shas, Menachem Moses of United Torah Judaism, Yaakov Katz of Yisrael Beiteinu and Zvulun Orlev of Habayit Hayehudi, as well as Orit Noked in the name of the Labor caucus. Meretz caucus chair Ilan Gilon declined to sign.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).