REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM — President Obama's decision to award Israeli President Shimon Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom is being viewed here as the latest opportunity to ask Washington for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from prison in the U.S.
Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy found guilty in the 1980s of passing classified information to Israel and sentenced to life in prison. For several years, Israel did not acknowledge that Pollard had spied, but in 1995, he was granted Israeli citizenship during Benjamin Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister.
Peres, receiving the medal this week, is expected to renew the request for Pollard's release. Israel has asked several times before, most recently in a personal letter from Peres. The White House rejected the request.
Netanyahu — whose request two years ago was also rejected — had almost secured Pollard's release from President Clinton in 1998. But Clinton reportedly changed his mind after CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign.
Last year, Vice President Joe Biden told a group of American rabbis that Pollard would be released "over his dead body."
Some in Israel have questioned why objections to Pollard's release remain so fierce after nearly three decades, particularly because he spied for a friendly government. In a radio interview Monday, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.Itamar Rabinowitz said that Israeli pressure has always met with a "tremendous counter-pressure" coming from senior legal and intelligence circles in America, who say that Pollard caused extensive intelligence damage.
The Americans also hold a "suspicion that Pollard was not alone, and there were others and that despite its promise, Israel did not reveal all its cards to the U.S. on this and similar issues," Rabinowitz said.
According to Rabinowitz, who served as ambassador to the U.S. in the 1990s, Israeli officials were made to understand this remained a suspicion, although it was never formally alleged.
Rabinowitz said releasing Pollard would take strength on the part of an American president to overcome the pressure of the two lobbies.
In April, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon publicly claimed that high-level CIA officials believe Pollard had an accomplice. But Ayalon, himself a former ambassador to the U.S., called the suspicions "baseless" and said there was "not a shred of evidence" to support them.
— Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Photo of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in 1998. Credit: Karl DeBlaker / Associated Press