The Cable

Will Convicted Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard Become a Man Without a Country?

Questions remain over whether the spy will be allowed to move to Israel, or stay in the U.S. for the next five years.

Israeli protesters hold a slogan which reads in Hebrew "We want Pollard back home" and "Where is the shame?" during a protest in front of the US embassy in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 17, 2012 to call for the release of Jewish-American spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, who is jailed in the United States on charges of passing thousands of secret documents about American spy activities in the Arab world to Israel in the 1980s and was sentenced to life in prison by a US court in 1987. AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ        (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages)
Israeli protesters hold a slogan which reads in Hebrew "We want Pollard back home" and "Where is the shame?" during a protest in front of the US embassy in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 17, 2012 to call for the release of Jewish-American spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, who is jailed in the United States on charges of passing thousands of secret documents about American spy activities in the Arab world to Israel in the 1980s and was sentenced to life in prison by a US court in 1987. AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages)

On Friday, after three decades behind bars, 61-year-old convicted spy Jonathan Pollard will emerge a free man from a federal prison in Butner, N.C. But what comes next for the man who for so long has been the subject of so much tension between the United States and Israel is an open question.

Pollard and his supporters insist it would be best for everyone if he is allowed to move to Israel since the hype surrounding his crimes, and his dubious celebrity, would make life in the United States “a circus,” as one U.S. congressman has said.

The diplomatic damage that Pollard’s 1987 conviction for selling U.S. military secrets to Israel while working as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst has been wide-ranging and widely acknowledged. But his original sentence of life in prison has remained a point of contention at the highest levels of U.S.-Israeli diplomacy, with a succession of Israeli political leaders over decades lobbying for his release.

Pollard’s sentence was given an end date last July when the Justice Department declined to object to his parole. The terms of Friday’s release require Pollard to remain in the United States for five years — something that two Democratic congressmen from New York argue isn’t worth the trouble.

In a Nov. 13 letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Eliot Engel asked Pollard be permitted to leave, acknowledging “he may need to renounce his American citizenship.”

“Despite the serious consequences that may follow such a decision, including being permanently barred from returning to the United States, he is willing to undertake this extraordinary measure,” Nadler and Engel wrote. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995.

So far, President Barack Obama doesn’t appear to have much sympathy for Pollard’s request. In July, the White House issued a terse statement noting Pollard committed “very serious crimes,” and the president has “no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole.”

The 18 months of spycraft for which Pollard was convicted — he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage — came to a screeching halt with his Nov. 21, 1985, arrest outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He tried and failed to gain asylum there when he feared federal investigators were closing in.

The decision to grant Pollard parole came at a tense moment in the relationship between the United States and Israel. The U.S. and other world powers had just reached a deal with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing crippling international sanctions on the Iranian economy. The Israeli government strongly objected to the deal. But in Pollard’s case, both the U.S. and Israel have denied his parole sought to appease the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for years for Pollard’s release, but now appears cautious as the spy’s fate — and whether he is allowed to resettle in Israel — hangs in the balance.

“We were asked not to speak expansively” on the subject, Education Minister Naftali Bennett told Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday. Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, described Pollard as “an emissary of the State of Israel — for better or worse.”

Photo Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages

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