When Jonathan Pollard was released from prison in 2015, there were some people who assumed the Israeli government would quietly step in to take care of the former spy and quickly bring him home.
I’ve visited Pollard a number of times over the years for off-the-record conversations, and while I can’t say much about what we discussed, I can reveal a bit about the life he leads and his Manhattan apartment, which sadly speaks volumes about Israel’s continuing abandonment of its former agent.
The words “Pollard’s Manhattan apartment” might have the average person think of a doorman, a view of the Big Apple, a large apartment, and the “easy life.”
The reality is far from it.
Pollard and his wife, Esther, live in a building without a doorman or an elevator. It is a five-floor walk-up on a narrow staircase. The apartment itself is tiny. There is a convertible couch that is the couple’s living room by day and their bed by night. In the same room, there is a small table and kitchenette. One wall is stacked with Pollard’s books, from the floor halfway to the ceiling. There is no view or balcony. There are barely any windows.
On my last visit a few weeks ago, I asked Pollard if he receives any assistance from the government – the same government whose ministers profess that they have not given up on the former spy and are constantly working to bring him home.
“No!” both Pollards responded.
Esther claimed that in the 30 years that Pollard was imprisoned, as well as over the last four years of parole, neither one of them has ever received any financial support from the government. “No help at all,” Pollard said. “Not financial, nor legal, nor medical. Nothing.”
It was a bit surprising. I asked if he received a stipend.
“No, not a cent,” he said, adding: “Look, we’re not asking for anything. All we want is to come home to Israel. Is that too much to ask?”
I asked Pollard if the government was aware of his living conditions, and if it inquired whether he had adequate medical care and insurance.
“Of course they know,” Esther said, adding that a “high-ranking representative” visited the couple and told them that he was keeping the Prime Minister’s Office fully apprised of the situation.
“We don’t care about our dismal living conditions,” she added. “What troubles us is how the government deceives the public into believing they are helping us, when in fact they are doing nothing to help, and absolutely nothing to get us home.”
For context, it is worth keeping in mind that Pollard suffers from serious medical issues, the result of his extensive 30-year prison sentence. He has a damaged spine with a herniated disc, which he says was caused from beatings he sustained by interrogators after his arrest in 1985.
In addition, he says, both of his ankles were broken, and since they were never treated, they did not heal correctly. Nowadays, Pollard walks with the help of a cane and regularly visits a pain clinic.
This is all important to keep in mind as the former spy continues to wait in the US for the chance to get on a plane and move to Israel, the state he once served. Whether you like him or not, his request has merit: he worked for the State of Israel, and the State of Israel should work on his behalf. Even with the complications and controversy this entails, he should not be left to languish away in New York.
While Pollard’s parole is supposed to be finished at the end of 2020, that might not happen. Just as the court has refused to ease the parole restrictions until now, it can just as easily extend them for years to come.
For this to change, Israel needs to get involved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed over the years that he brings up Pollard in every meeting with the US president, whoever it might be. While this might be true, there is a question of where this request sits on the list of his priorities.
When Netanyahu visited Washington in March, just weeks before the April 9 election, there was a feeling that President Donald Trump might release Pollard, and that Netanyahu – just two weeks before elections – would be able to fly him home. Instead, Netanyahu returned to Israel with recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and Pollard remained in his living room.
I don’t know if Trump will ever do so, but with the stroke of a pen he can commute Pollard’s parole.
To secure his release though, Netanyahu would have to ask and make the former spy his top priority. Considering the challenges Israel faces from Iran to Gaza and Lebanon to Egypt, it is questionable whether that will ever happen.
Will there be a war with Iran this summer? That is a good question, and based on the saber rattling going on right now in the Persian Gulf, it seems like it is a real possibility.
Just look at the past week: Last Thursday, Iran allegedly attacked oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman; on Monday, Iran announced that it would soon breach the limits on its enrichment of uranium; on Tuesday, Katyusha rockets were fired – likely by Shia militias supported by Iran – at US military bases in Iraq; on Wednesday Netanyahu visited a massive IDF drill in the North during which he warned that Israel has significant destructive power; and early on Thursday morning, Iran shot down an advanced American military drone.
On the surface, it seems like this is the tensest period in the region since 2012, when an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities seemed imminent.
The question ultimately comes down to interests. Iran wants to get Europe, Russia and China to remain within the JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear deal it reached with the world superpowers and which Trump left last year.
Trump, on the other hand, wants to get Iran to come back to the table to negotiate a better deal that would prevent the ayatollahs from ever getting their hands on a bomb. Israel has a double interest: it wants to make sure that Iran does not get a bomb, but it also wants to avoid an all-out war.
The Iranian attacks in the Gulf and the downing of the drone put Trump in a difficult position. Tehran seems to think that Trump is boxed in and won’t use military force due to a variety of reasons: his reelection is coming up, the president anyhow doesn’t seem to believe much in military force, and Congress seems opposed as well. But the more they antagonize the president, the more pressure he will feel to do something. This could end up blowing up in everyone’s face.
Whether Israel is dragged into a war will depend on the scope of what Trump does. If he simply orders an attack against the surface-to-air missile system that downed the drone, Iran might decide to contain the retaliation. But if Trump orders an extensive bombing of Iranian military and nuclear facilities, Hezbollah could be activated, and then Israel will find itself in a massive war with Lebanon.
If the US does nothing though, Iran could interpret the lack of response as it having successfully deterred America, and decide to continue poking the US and the West. The path to war would only get shorter.
In the end, neither side really wants a war, but as history has shown in the Middle East, sometimes that really doesn’t matter.
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