Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tried unsuccessfully to persuade American officials to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard ahead of diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians, Channel 2 reported on Monday.
The report said Netanyahu told the Americans that if US President Barack Obama commuted Pollard’s life sentence to the nearly 28 years he has served, it would help him persuade his cabinet to approve the release of 82 Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons. But the Americans rejected Netanyahu’s request.
When asked for confirmation, sources close to Netanyahu would only say: “We routinely raise the issue with American officials.”
Netanyahu has tried in the past to persuade the US to release Pollard in return for Israeli gestures to the Palestinians.
Ahead of the signing of the Wye River Accords in 1998, Netanyahu demanded Pollard’s release, but then-CIA chief George Tenet threatened to quit if Pollard was set free.
Pollard’s wife, Esther, declined to comment on the report, but the Committee for Pollard’s Freedom issued a statement saying that he should be released regardless of developments with the Palestinians.
“Dozens of top American officials have called for Pollard’s immediate release due to the values of justice and mercy,” a committee spokesman said. “Jonathan did not murder anyone. His 28 years of service, including seven in solitary confinement, is an unprecedented sentence for the crime, so he should be released immediately without conditioning it on anything else.”
MKs: US should help peace process by releasing Pollard
On Sunday, Knesset members from across the political spectrum called on Obama to release Pollard as a way to help the nascent negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Pollard, who is serving his 28th year in prison, has repeatedly shunned attempts to make him a bargaining chip in prisoner exchanges and diplomatic processes, especially when murderers were released.
But MKs who support his release said freeing him now would not be seen as a trade for Palestinian terrorists but as a sign of goodwill by the US to the Israeli people.
“This is the best time in the world to call upon the Americans to release Pollard as a gesture for the beginning of negotiations, said Labor MK Nachman Shai, who is the new co-chairman of the Knesset’s Free Pollard Caucus. “Pollard should be the American gift to Israelis, and they can do it.”
Shai noted that many Israelis feel uncomfortable about the American pressure to come to the negotiating table. He said that a popular issue like freeing Pollard would go a long way.
“It’s a window of opportunity for goodwill to Israelis, who are not going through an easy time,” Shai said. “It would build up public support for negotiations and show that the US also understands the gravity of this historic moment.”
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel said he found it incredible that America continues to hold Pollard and did not even let him attend his father’s funeral while US officials demand that Israel release unrepentant murderers.
“What is going on in the minds of Americans when they insist on keeping Jonathan Pollard in prison and demand that Israel free terrorists?” Ariel exclaimed on Israel Radio. “It really is amazing.”
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin went further, calling America’s behavior shameful and Israel’s an act of betrayal to its agent.
"If launching the negotiations is such an interest to the Americans, how can it be that we are releasing terrorist murderers, and they are not releasing our agent who has been sitting in jail for more than 27 years?” Feiglin asked.
“The shame is on all of us and not just on [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] who made the decision. I would never release murderers for Pollard, but if they think it’s important to free them, how can they forget Pollard?” Labor MK Avishay Braverman said Pollard should be freed now, regardless of whether the peace process begins or progresses.
“He has served so much longer than others who committed similar crimes that the time has come to free him now, without connection to anything – except justice,” Braverman asserted.