JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Tuesday pledged to press President Barack Obama to release a convicted Israeli spy sentenced to life in prison – a step that could reopen a case that has been an ongoing source of tension between the two allies for 25 years.
Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday he would ask the American president in the coming days "in a formal and public manner" to release former Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard.
The plea got a cool reception in Washington. "I am not aware that that's something that the president is looking at doing," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985. He pleaded guilty to passing secrets to Israel and received a life sentence. Pollard enjoys widespread sympathy in Israel, where many believe the sentence was too harsh.
Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have frequently raised the Pollard case in the past, but have been rebuffed by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The case is vividly remembered by members of the military and intelligence communities. In those circles, any leniency for Pollard is steadfastly opposed.
In his first tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu granted him Israeli citizenship and later visited him in jail. Netanyahu said he has raised the issue with both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton "at least half a dozen times" in closed meetings over the last two months.
"I worked very hard in my first term as prime minister to get Jonathan out," Netanyahu told Israel Radio. "He nearly made it. I intend to succeed in my second term. I think we can do it."
Israeli media have recently speculated that Netanyahu suggested Pollard's release as a condition for accepting a U.S. proposal to temporarily freeze settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The U.S. offered Israel a package of incentives to persuade the country to freeze building, but the U.S. announced this month it had given up that attempt and was looking for new ways to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli officials refused to say whether Netanyahu's call was connected to broader diplomatic efforts.
Netanyahu said releasing Pollard was important "both because of the state of Israel's moral obligation to him and so that he might live with his family and restore himself to health after his prolonged incarceration."
Esther Pollard, the convicted spy's wife, met Netanyahu Monday, presenting him with a dictated letter from her husband imploring Netanyahu to make a formal clemency request. She says Pollard, 56, is in frail health.
"If you intend to bring him home alive, the time is now," she said she told the prime minister.
Lawrence Korb, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense at the time of Pollard's arrest and a supporter of his release, came to Israel to attend the meeting. He told reporters that Pollard was given a disproportionately harsh sentence.
"Enough is enough," said Korb.