WASHINGTON (May. 17)
In a first, Israel’s ambassador traveled to a North Carolina prison to meet Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard — a visit Pollard has said is crucial to getting U.S. authorities to consider freeing him. Daniel Ayalon’s visit Tuesday comes at a sensitive time for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, which faces formidable resistance from Israel’s settler movement before Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer. Increased engagement with Israel’s best-known spy could be a sop to the right wing.
“In our meeting today I conveyed our support for his release on a humanitarian basis,” Ayalon said in a statement. “I came to him with a message of strength and support from the Israeli government and people.”
The Ha’aretz newspaper quoted Pollard and his wife Esther as criticizing the meeting, saying it lacked substance. Ayalon met with Esther Pollard before meeting her husband.
Calls to Pollard activists and to his lawyer, Jacques Semmelman, were not returned.
Sharon is scheduled to be in Washington on May 24 to deliver a keynote speech at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, appealing for U.S. Jewish support for the withdrawal. News about Pollard could overshadow withdrawal detractors at the conference, some speculate.
Israeli prime ministers routinely have raised Pollard’s release in their meetings with U.S. presidents, but Pollard has been telling sympathizers for years that the United States will not take Israel’s demands seriously until its embassy visits him regularly.
“Make no mistake: The Americans are not fools,” Pollard wrote last August to two Israeli legislators who back his cause. “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.”
It was not clear whether Ayalon would follow up with other visits. Regular visits would reinforce Israel’s claim of responsibility for Pollard, made when it granted him citizenship in 1995 and again in 1998 when it acknowledged he was an Israeli agent.
It also could help nudge the United States into treating Pollard as possible bargaining chip in its diplomatic relations with Israel.
Israel has attempted to win Pollard’s release in exchange for concessions in peace talks several times, most famously at Wye Plantation in 1998, when it agreed to go ahead with a deal with the Palestinians after securing President Clinton’s assurances that he would consider pardoning Pollard.
Clinton ultimately decided against a pardon, under pressure from U.S. intelligence figures outraged by what they saw as a betrayal by one of their own. Pollard had been a naval intelligence analyst.
The thinking is that the more Pollard is identified as an Israeli agent, and not as an American spying for a foreign country, the easier it would be for an American president to release him.
The meeting with Ayalon comes as Pollard’s legal recourses dwindle. A federal appeals court is considering his 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 expressed skepticism about Pollard’s arguments.
Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987, after pleading guilty to spying for Israel. The sentence ignored a plea deal between Pollard and government officials.
A 40-page classified declaration written by then-Secretary of State Casper Weinberger outlined the damage Pollard caused to U.S. interests, and is considered to be responsible for the severity of the sentence.
Officials at Butner prison, where Pollard is held, declined comment.