Supporters Wonder What It Means As Ambassador Prepares to Visit Pollard

Arrangements are being worked out for Israel’s ambassador to the United States to meet with Jonathan Pollard at his North Carolina prison in the next few weeks. Daniel Ayalon will meet with Pollard at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who called for the meeting during his talks last week in the United States. An Israeli official in Washington said Sharon also informed the Bush administration that Ayalon would meet the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst and convicted Israeli spy at the Butner Correctional Institution.

“The goals are to check on his situation, see how his conditions are and give him a message of concern from the government of Israel,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

The meeting, a first by an Israeli ambassador to the United States, comes at a delicate time for Israeli politics and in relations between the Jewish state and America. Israel’s plan to disengage from settlements in the Gaza Strip has infuriated the right wing in Israel, many of the same people who long have advocated for Pollard’s release.

It also comes as Pollard’s legal recourses seem to be dwindling. While a federal appeals court has not yet ruled on Pollard’s request for a new trial and to review classified information that was used to sentence him, the three-judge panel that heard oral arguments in the case last month seemed resistant to Pollard’s arguments.

Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987, after pleading guilty to spying for Israel. The sentence was considered harsh at the time, and went against a plea bargain between Pollard and government officials.

A classified 40-page declaration written by then-Secretary of State Casper Weinberger outlined damage Pollard caused to U.S. interests, and is considered responsible for the severity of the sentence.

Jews in the United States and Israel have pressed successive American administrations for clemency for Pollard.

Reports of the meeting were seen in Israel as a gesture to Israel’s right wing, and renewed speculation that Pollard’s release could play a role in future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot reported Friday that Israeli sources “hinted” that Bush would pardon and release Pollard in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But that remains unlikely because the withdrawal was Sharon’s brainchild, not something Bush had to sweeten for Sharon to accept. However, Bush has become invested in the plan since approving it last year, and could be interested in making it more politically viable for Sharon, who faces strong opposition to the plan within his ruling Likud Party.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Pollard has been dangled as an incentive for Israeli concession. President Clinton reportedly agreed to release Pollard to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to back the Wye Peace Accord in 1998, but Clinton changed his mind after strong objections from George Tenet, who was CIA director at the time.

The Israeli official in Washington denied that the planned meeting was related to discussions of Pollard’s release.

“There’s a feeling it’s something that needs to be addressed in and of itself, with no connection to anything else,” he said of the meeting.

Settler groups noted last month that Ayalon spoke at a North Carolina synagogue but did not go to Pollard’s nearby prison, even as Sharon has said publicly that he has directed the U.S. ambassador to visit Pollard.

Pollard long has contended that U.S. officials will not take his case seriously until he has regular visits from Israel’s U.S. ambassador.

“Unless and until the ambassador is activated and deputized to deal with my case on a regular basis, and for the duration, Washington will not relate to you or the rest of your colleagues with any degree of seriousness,” he wrote to Israeli supporters in August. “They know that Jerusalem is just allowing you to ‘go through the motions.’ “

A visit to a federal prison requires coordination with various government officials, sources said. Ayalon’s planned visit must be coordinated with the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons, as well as the U.S. Navy.

A spokesman for Butner was unavailable for comment.

Pollard has received Israeli officials before, including several Knesset members, who have been accompanied by the Israeli consul general in Atlanta. Pollard also traveled to Washington in September 2003 for a hearing before the U.S. District Court.

Joseph Winter, a spokesman for Justice for Jonathan Pollard, the Toronto-based campaign founded by Pollard’s wife Esther, said the group had not heard about any pending visit. Winter said he believed it was disinformation.

“The only time one hears these rumors is when an Israeli prime minister negotiates away parts of Israel,” he told JTA.

JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

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