Israel offered a cautious welcome on Wednesday to the planned U.S. release of former spy Jonathan Pollard, wary that too warm a celebration might hurt efforts to persuade the Obama administration to let him leave for Israel immediately.
Under parole terms announced on Tuesday, Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was convicted in 1987 of passing reams of classified information to Israel, will be freed on Nov. 21 but confined to the United States for five years.
Having been granted Israeli citizenship while in prison, Pollard, 60, has said he wants to emigrate to Israel, where his second wife lives, and where he can expect to receive substantial government back-pay for his 30 years behind bars.
His crime and lack of contrition have, however, been an irritant in a U.S.-Israeli alliance now strained by feuds over the Iranian nuclear deal and stalled Palestinian peace talks.
Some of Pollard’s fellow American Jews have also voiced discomfort with his status as a cause celebre in certain circles in Israel, even if broader society is more lukewarm towards him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the news of Pollard’s parole order with a three-sentence written statement. On Wednesday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked sounded circumspect about the chances of Pollard coming to Israel.
“If one wants to change the (parole) terms, then that is not a legal matter. It will apparently require the intercession of the (U.S.) president, and that is a more complex process. It would be political,” Shaked told Israel’s Army Radio.
Pollard’s legal team has called on President Barack Obama to allow him to go to Israel immediately after release. That appears unlikely and his lawyers have said that he has a job and a place to live set up in the United States.
“The president has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole,” Alistair Baskey, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told reporters.
Shaked would not be drawn on whether the Israeli government should appeal to Obama on the matter, saying: “What needs to be done, simply, is to ease life for him, and of course to make efforts for him to reach Israel.”
She called for “lowering our profile and allowing the legal process to run its course quietly, with as little noise as possible,” and said she was opposed to any idea of sending a senior Israeli official to greet Pollard when he leaves jail.
Asked whether such displays might aggravate the Obama administration and make it less likely to accommodate Pollard’s bid to emigrate, Shaked said: “That supposition has a basis.”
Shaked belongs to the Jewish Home party, an ultranationalist partner in Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government, with constituents who consider Pollard a national hero. She sounded reluctant to agree publicly with that characterization, however.
“A hero of Israel? In my eyes he is a certainly a person who was sent by the state, and the state should take care of him and certainly bring him to Israel,” Shaked said.