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Jonathan Pollard, American Who Spied for Israel, Welcomed by Netanyahu

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JERUSALEM — Jonathan J. Pollard, the American who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel in a Cold War-era espionage case that had been a thorn in relations between the two allies, arrived in Israel early Wednesday to a carefully staged, if relatively subdued, hero’s welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The predawn scene unfolded with a camera rolling, as Mr. Netanyahu, who has just begun what will be a bitterly contested campaign leading to elections in March, met Mr. Pollard, who completed his parole last month, and his wife, Esther, at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.

The couple descended from a private jet, kissed the tarmac and recited a Jewish prayer of thanks reserved for new experiences. Mr. Netanyahu added one of his own, praising God for “releasing the bound” — though the prayer is ordinarily said upon waking to refer to freeing the worshiper from the bonds of sleep.

The prime minister then handed Mr. Pollard, who was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 while in prison, an Israeli identification card.

“You’re home,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

A U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, Mr. Pollard gave a range of classified documents to Israel starting in 1984. His disclosures exposed the abilities of the American spy agencies, potentially damaged intelligence collection efforts and risked exposing secrets, C.I.A. and Defense Department officials said in classified documents prepared after his arrest.

“We are ecstatic to be home at last after 35 years,” Mr. Pollard, 66, said. “And we thank the people and the prime minister of Israel for bringing us home. No one could be prouder of his country or of this leader than we are. And we hope to become productive citizens as soon and as quickly as possible and to get on with our lives here.”

The spectacle was most likely the final chapter in a long and painful saga that has irritated the Israeli-American relationship.

Aware of the sensitivities that the Pollard case still stirs up between the close allies, the Israeli government appeared to have deliberately kept quiet the exact timing of Mr. Pollard’s arrival, with Mr. Netanyahu serving as a one-man welcoming committee, avoiding any larger displays of celebration.

The jet that delivered the Pollards belonged to a casino owned by Sheldon Adelson, the Republican billionaire who is a longtime benefactor of Mr. Netanyahu’s, the Israeli news media reported. News of Mr. Pollard’s arrival was broken by the editor of Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper that Mr. Adelson has long bankrolled to provide Mr. Netanyahu with constant political backing. Mr. Adelson, one of the world’s richest men and a key supporter of President Trump’s, had long lobbied for Mr. Pollard’s release.

Mr. Pollard’s Israel-based lawyer, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, told Israel Hayom that there had been “a great effort to keep the plan of the arrival out of the American news media and not to announce anything prior to their landing.”

The Free Pollard campaign committee said in a statement that the Pollards had been moved to a temporary location for a period of quarantine, as required by Israel’s coronavirus regulations, and that the date of their arrival had been kept secret “for security reasons.” It added that the date had also been selected to allow the smooth continuation of Esther Pollard’s course of medical treatments.

The United States Parole Commission, the arm of the Justice Department that supervises the releases of federal prisoners, decided in November not to extend the travel restrictions it had placed on Mr. Pollard when he was released from a federal prison five years ago.

Mr. Pollard has long said he would move to Israel if allowed.

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Mr. Pollard and his wife, Esther, inside the private plane, reportedly provided by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, that brought him to Israel on Wednesday.Credit…Israel Hayom/Associated Press

After his arrest in 1985, Mr. Pollard pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors who agreed to seek a yearslong sentence. But the judge, relying on a once-classified damage assessment written by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, sentenced him to life in prison. Mr. Pollard ultimately served three decades behind bars, the longest stretch in prison for an American who illegally gave material to an allied government.

In October 1987, the C.I.A., with Mr. Pollard’s cooperation, began working on a damage assessment. Though a redacted version of the document has been made public, much remains classified. The report found that while the Israelis did not request information on American military plans or some of the most delicate topics, the “sheer quantity” of disclosures posed a risk to intelligence sources and collection methods. “Pollard’s operation has few parallels among known U.S. espionage cases,” the C.I.A. report said.

Mr. Pollard was released from prison in November 2015, leaving a federal penitentiary in North Carolina to live in New York. The conditions of his parole, unsuccessfully contested by his lawyer and the Israeli government, did not allow him to travel outside the United States for five years without permission.

American national security officials had long objected to any easing of Mr. Pollard’s punishment, highlighting the damage he caused to American intelligence collection. But objections from intelligence officers largely became muted over time, with some acknowledging that Mr. Pollard had paid his debt.

In Israel, Mr. Pollard’s case became a cause celebre of some on the right wing who argued that he was a national hero who had been abandoned to his fate. Many in the country felt that he had received a disproportionately long sentence.

But others saw him with more jaundiced eyes, noting that he had sold American secrets for large sums of money. And others faulted him for having created enormous problems for Jews in the United States government who felt that their loyalties had been suddenly called into question.

Israel Waismel-Manor, a political science lecturer at the University of Haifa, wrote a harshly critical post on Twitter on Wednesday, dismissing the notion that Mr. Pollard was a hero and describing him as driven by ego and money.

Reflecting the ambivalence, Mr. Pollard said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News in May 2019 that he felt Mr. Netanyahu had not pressed hard enough to allow him to travel to Israel after his release. Describing the Israeli government’s attitude as “indifferent,” Mr. Pollard said at the time, “It’s a question of priorities; there always seems to be something else.”

“To make me a priority would mean that the government actually cared about me enough to say: ‘This is what we want. He’s done his time. It’s time for him to come home,’ in a forthright manner,” he added. “And that simply hasn’t been done.”

The historian Martin Kramer said in a recent interview that Mr. Pollard stood out today mainly as a throwback, given how closely the United States and Israel now collaborate on many fronts, above all on intelligence and national security matters.

“The average Israeli probably just wonders how — how did this thing happen?” he said. “We’re such close allies. Why would it have been necessary?”

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