Israel to Press US for Spy Release

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister has pledged to press President Barack Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, a convicted Israeli spy sentenced to life in prison.

Netanyahu said in a statement, on Tuesday, that he would ask the US president in the coming days "in a formal and public manner" to free Pollard, a former Navy analyst.

Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy when he was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985.

He pleaded guilty to passing secrets to Israel and received a life sentence. There is widespread sympathy for Pollard in Israel, where many see the sentence as too harsh.

His case has been an ongoing source of tension between the two allies for 25 years.

Failed Attempts

Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have frequently raised the Pollard case in the past, but their pleas for his release have been rejected by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The case is vividly remembered by members of the military and intelligence communities. In those circles, any leniency for Pollard is steadfastly opposed.

In his first tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu granted him Israeli citizenship and later visited him in jail.

Netanyahu said he has raised the issue with both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton "at least half a dozen times" in closed meetings over the last two months.

"I worked very hard in my first term as prime minister to get Jonathan out," Netanyahu told Israel Radio. "He nearly made it. I intend to succeed in my second term. I think we can do it."

But Israel’s latest call for Pollard’s release did not get much attention from Washington.

"I am not aware that that’s something that the president is looking at doing," Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary told reporters.

Bargaining Tool?

Israeli media have recently speculated that Netanyahu suggested Pollard’s release as a condition for accepting a US proposal to temporarily freeze settlement building in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The US offered Israel a package of incentives to persuade the country to freeze building the illegal settlements.

But the US announced this month that it had given up that attempt and was looking for new ways to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli officials refused to say whether Netanyahu’s call was connected to broader diplomatic efforts.

Netanyahu said releasing Pollard was important "both because of the state of Israel’s moral obligation to him and so that he might live with his family and restore himself to health after his prolonged incarceration."

Esther Pollard, the convicted spy’s wife, met Netanyahu on Monday, presenting him with a dictated letter from her husband.

Through the letter, he implored Netanyahu to make a formal clemency request. She says Pollard, 56, is in frail health.

"If you intend to bring him home alive, the time is now," she told Netanyahu.

Lawrence Korb, the US assistant secretary of defence at the time of Pollard’s arrest and a supporter of his release, came to Israel to attend the meeting.

He told reporters that Pollard was given a disproportionately harsh sentence, saying that, "Enough is enough."

(Agencies via Aljazeera English)

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