Jonathan Pollard’s Release Feels Like Israel’s Consolation Prize for Iran Deal

The fact that the convicted spy's release is happening at such a low moment in U.S.-Israel ties casts a pall over the news in a way that never felt possible for Pollard’s dedicated supporters.

Daniel Bar-On

“Jonathan Pollard to be set free”

At almost any other point during the near-30 years that the American security analyst convicted of passing top-secret documents to Israeli agents in 1987 has sat in prison, that headline would have been greeted with scenes of celebration and joy in Jerusalem; an indisputable victory for the Israeli government.

Decades of pressure, years of lobbying efforts, personal appeals for his release from every Israeli official - from the prime minister and the chief rabbi on down - to the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, had done nothing to shift the U.S. government’s determination to keep Pollard in prison. There was a new round of rumors every few years, but the timing of the rumors tended to occur when it seemed as if a U.S. administration was trying to dangle the prospect of a Pollard release as an incentive for Israel to make concessions in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  

But the release never happened. Even as the world changed - as some of the dangers that motivated Pollard to commit his crimes proved to be legitimate, and as the age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden meant that bringing classified information to the light of day as part of an ideological crusade would become trendy - Pollard remained behind bars.

The fact that it is happening now - with his release date announced at an all-time low moment in the relationship between Israel and the U.S., with Israel lining up with the Republican Party against a sitting Democratic president, fighting what the administration clearly considers its most important foreign policy achievement - casts a pall over the news in a way that never felt possible for Pollard’s dedicated supporters in Israel and the U.S.

As far as Israel’s leaders are concerned, the timing of the announcement unavoidably gives the liberation of Pollard the feel of a consolation prize - and a poor one at that. Especially to those who view the Iran agreement as a disastrous pathway to a far more dangerous Middle East and a death sentence to Israel. The move feels like a power play rather than any kind of grand gesture - an effort to dissuade Israel and its American supporters from applying maximum political pressure on the Iran deal out of gratitude - or even fear that the release could somehow be disrupted.

When the announcement took place Tuesday, both Pollard’s lawyers and Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials were quick to stress that there is “zero linkage” between Iran and Pollard, a theme that will likely be echoed in days to come.

The basis for such a claim is solid. The prospect of a November 21, 2015 has been on the table for a long time.

Routinely, without any political considerations, a life sentence is converted into 30 years. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch pooh-poohed the idea of any linkage between Iran and Pollard, saying sarcastically that "it would have been extremely far-thinking of people 30 years ago to sentence Mr. Pollard and set this mandatory release date to coincide with the Iran deal. And if they were able to pull that off I would be quite impressed."

It was Lynch’s remarks on Saturday saying that the Justice Department "will not interfere in the case" – would not do anything to stop a parole board from recommending his release that send the clearest signal this announcement would be made - following the widely reported Wall Street Journal article on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal report didn’t come as a surprise to those who were paying close attention to all things Pollard.

In June, Haaretz writer Amir Oren attempted to clarify with U.S. officials whether Pollard would in fact be released on November 21, the accepted scheduled parole date that has appeared on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons website - but which could have been changed by the Prison Bureau or the Justice Department. For a brief period of time, the November parole date disappeared from the website and was listed simply as “Life” - then, in October 2014, it reverted back to November 21 without explanation. Shortly afterwards, Pollard’s first formal application for parole was rejected.

On July 17, Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev reported that Pollard was “on track for November 21 release” citing informed sources as saying that there were indications that the Justice Department would not object to the release.

Now that the release is a done deal, the only real possible card to be played between Washington and Jerusalem is the 61-year-old’s future when he gets out of prison. He has made no secret of his desire to emigrate to Israel, and Israel is eager to have him - he was granted Israeli citizenship at the request of his lawyers in 1995. The issue has yet to be addressed definitively - but it seems highly unlikely that a convicted spy like Pollard will be permitted to leave the United States. As his lawyers said Tuesday, Pollard will be required to remain in the United States for five years under the terms of his parole.

Equally unlikely is the prospect that any hope exists that the announcement of Pollard’s scheduled release will have any kind of substantial effect on Israel’s full-court press in Washington to kill the nuclear deal with Iran.