As Israel prepares for the visit of President Barack Obama, it’s hard not to notice a preponderance of hand made signs all over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem featuring the visage of Obama and a modified version of his 2008 campaign slogan: “Yes You Can.” But next to Obama is the image of one of Israel’s most notorious spies, Jonathan Jay Pollard. Yes, Barack Obama, you can free Jonathan Pollard.
The signs are part of a campaign to urge Obama to release Pollard, who has spent 28 years in prison after pleading guilty to spying for Israel in 1986. Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres is expected to raise the matter with Obama in his meeting. A number of prominent Israelis—including former hostage Gilad Shalit—have signed a petition asking Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence. In the United States the cause has been taken up as well by former national security officials such as former CIA director James Woolsey and former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.
One prominent member of the Free Pollard campaign is a man who knows a thing or two about prison, Natan Sharanksy, a former Soviet dissident who emigrated to Israel and has served as a member of the Knesset here as well as a deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government.
Sharansky, who was celebrated as a prisoner of conscience when he was locked away in a Soviet Gulag, said Monday in an interview that Pollard was no political prisoner. “From the very beginning I always explained why it is wrong to compare the two of us. We were not violating any laws in fighting for human rights in the Soviet Union,” Sharansky said. “Pollard is not a prisoner of Zion. He is an American citizen who violated the laws of his country and betrayed his obligations as an American citizen.”
Nonetheless, Sharansky thinks Pollard has served his time. “Every year he is kept in prison, he is turning more and more into the victim,” he said. Sharanksy noted that his own government at first did not acknowledge that Pollard was even an agent. Over time however Israeli officials have owned up to the spying and apologized for it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made several public pleas for Pollard’s release and encouraged members of his government to visit him in his North Carolina prison.
“It is 28 years already,” Sharansky said. “When it was 10 years, the government was embarrassed and would not talk about it. When it was 15 years, we said he was suffering so much, but we would not say anything publicly. Now it’s 28 years and we are asking for mercy.”
President Obama told Israel’s Channel Two News last week that he was not prepared at this point to release Pollard from prison, noting that he had committed a serious crime.
Sharansky however said he was encouraged by Obama’s answer because he also said he would review the case and compare Pollard’s treatment with similar cases. Pollard’s advocates say no other spy for an allied nation has served so long a prison sentence.
In December the CIA declassified a 1987 damage assessment of Pollard’s activities that said Pollard first approached Israeli officials with an offer to spy in 1984. The assessment shows that Pollard was not a very good spy. When he was a student in the early 1970s at Stanford University, for example, the CIA report says he told fellow students he was already a spy for the Mossad. Between June 1984 and November 1985 Pollard did provide suitcases filled with classified documents to the apartment of an Irit Erb, a secretary at the Israeli embassy in Washington. The documents related mainly to assessments of Arab military strength and Soviet military capabilities. It says Pollard’s material also helped Israeli forces in a 1985 raid on PLO headquarters at the time in Tunisia. Pollard apparently didn’t take very good care to cover his tracks as many of his co-workers in Naval intelligence noticed his interest in topics way outside his areas of responsibility.