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U.S.-Israel relations in the wake of Jonathan Pollard

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A sign in Israel calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard prior to President Obama's visit, March 2013. (Instagram)

A sign in Israel calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard prior to President Obama’s visit, March 2013. (Instagram)

Twenty-seven years ago this week, U.S. naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard pleaded guilty to charges of spying for Israel. Pollard was eventually given a life sentence; his wife Anne received two concurrent five-year sentences as an accessory.

Pollard’s case remains of the most contentious espionage cases in U.S. history. Countless Israeli and Jewish leaders continue to press for his release, arguing that his crime — spying for an allied nation during peacetime — is far outstripped by spies who did more damage to national security and got less severe punishments.

At first, Israeli leaders denied any knowledge of Pollard’s activities, saying they received the initial news with “shock and consternation.” Days later, Israel announced it was conducting an investigation and apologized if any spying had indeed transpired.

“The relations with the U.S. are based on solid foundations of deep friendship, close affinity and mutual trust. Spying in the United States is in total contradiction to our policy. Such activity to the extent that it did take place was wrong and the government of Israel apologizes,” the government said.

It would take until 1998 for Israel to formally acknowledge that Pollard was a spy, but in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of Pollard’s activities, U.S.-Israel relations went through a difficult period. The United States proceeded with an inquiry of its own, sending delegates to interview diplomats said to be knowledgable about the case. Then the United States moved to limit the exchange of intelligence with Israel. With suspicions running high, one Jewish leader sought to assuage the public that the incident would not affect relations between the two countries.

Despite Pollard’s confession, he received a life sentence, a punishment many Israelis considered unduly harsh and incommensurate with the crime. In contrast, Abraham Foxman accused the Israeli government of dealing with the case “somewhat cavalierly” and called for a more sober analysis, warning that it could negatively impact U.S.-Israeli relations.

The incident also strained relations between American Jews and Israelis. Some Israelis saw the American Jewish response as cowardly, exhibiting what one Israeli diplomat and academic referred to as a Diaspora mentality. Many Americans meanwhile continued to view Israeli actions as irresponsible. Saul Bellow, the prominent Jewish writer, accused the Israeli government of stoking anti-Semitism with its handling of the Pollard case.

By 1990, as suspicions subsided, Jewish sympathy for Pollard grew. But despite continuing high-profile efforts to secure his release, Pollard remains imprisoned in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina.

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