Although there was no mention of Jonathan Pollard -- the American who spied for Israel and was sentenced to life in prison -- during President Barack Obama's visit to Israel, Israeli leaders did call on Obama to release Pollard. And Obama refused.
Pollard was the civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy who was arrested in Washington in 1985 and convicted of supplying Israeli spyhandlers with a vast quantity of classified documents and satellite photographs. Sentenced to life in prison, he is now behind bars at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Thousands of Israelis have taken part in demonstrations, demanding that he be set free.
Behind the protest signs and slogans stands an Israeli organization, the Committee to Free Jonathan Pollard. It operates as a charity, with an annual budget of around $50,000. It is funded by contributions from the public, and the managers say they do not receive any government money.
The leaders of the committee are Effi Lahav and Adi Ginsburg, known as right-wingers on the Israeli political spectrum -- suspicious of Arabs and unwilling to make concessions for often illusory progress toward possible peace. But they have succeeded in totally changing the campaign to free Pollard. For years it aligned itself only with the political Right -- even with radically nationalistic Jews in both Israel and the U.S. They practically ignored Pollard's wife Esther (whom he married while an inmate after divorcing Anne Pollard, who was convicted of helping Jonathan's espionage and served five years in prison) and dictated the tone of the campaign.
Committee activists said harsh things about Israeli and American dignitaries who refused to join the cause. A U.S. official who chose not to call publicly for Pollard's release might be labeled by committee activists as a "self-hating Jew" if he were Jewish -- or an "anti-Semite" if he were not.
The change that occurred in recent years can be seen in the fact that left-leaning Israelis are also interested now in Pollard's prison conditions and in seeing him freed. Writers, artists, and jurists are on his side now. They do not generally hail him as a Zionist hero, but as a man who has been punished enough after 28 years.
The committee has broadened its campaign and has achieved a national consensus. The strongest sign of that came when 112 members of the last Knesset (out of 120 in the parliament) signed a resolution calling on the United States to release Pollard.
The campaign has also been helped by the fact that after decades of refusing to sympathize with Pollard in any way, there are voices emerging in U.S. military, intelligence, and political circles who call for his release. These include former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, and a former Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey.
Jim Woolsey, in recent interviews, stresses that Pollard committed serious crimes but has been sufficiently punished. Woolsey points to others arrested in America for spying on behalf of friendly countries such as South Korea and the Philippines. They typically were locked up for less than a decade, not serving a life sentence like Pollard.
The Israeli media have perked up at Lawrence Korb's statements that Pollard should be granted clemency. A longtime defense expert and Pentagon official, Korb was a senior aide to Caspar Weinberger -- the defense secretary at the time of Pollard's arrest. Weinberger is believed more responsible than anyone else (except Pollard himself) for the severity of the spy's punishment. The defense secretary wrote a memo to the judge in the case, which portrayed Pollard's actions as extremely damaging to the United States.
The committee is hoping that the major news media in the U.S. will also take up the cause of freedom for Jonathan Pollard, and they are especially targeting the New York Times and its columnists. They suffered a setback this month when Bret Stephens, considered usually a pro-Israel columnist in the Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece that blasted the campaign to free Pollard. The suggestion was that Israelis should not be celebrating the actions of an American, who happens to be Jewish, who betrayed his country by selling secrets.
Still, the committee is continuing with its significant and successful shift away from stressing politics -- or hailing Pollard as a hero -- and instead speaking of the man's deteriorating health and his miserable isolation. Freeing him is framed as a humanitarian issue.
An honest look at Israel's attitude toward Pollard has to include some uncomfortable facts in the background, however. While the request now is for kind gestures toward the American who spied against his own country, this is the same Israel which was far from gentle and forgiving to Mordecai Vanunu -- the Israeli technician who worked in the top-secret nuclear laboratories at the Dimona reactor in the Negev.
He provided photographs and details of his clandestine work to a British newspaper in 1986, and then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres made sure to order the Mossad to locate and capture Vanunu. A female Mossad operative seduced Vanunu in London and lured him to Rome, where an Israeli espionage team pounced on him, apparently injected him with a sedative -- which has been in the Mossad playbook for over 60 years -- and shipped him to Israel to stand trial. This happened to have been just a few months after Pollard was arrested by the FBI in Washington.
Vanunu was tried behind closed doors and imprisoned in isolation. Despite appeals by him and a raft of international sympathizers, Vanunu was compelled to serve his full 18-year term.
Many Israelis would point out that Vanunu was not clamped into prison for life; but almost nine years after his release from a jail cell he continues to be under a kind of house arrest -- with limitations on his right to speak to journalists and many others, and a ban on his leaving Israel. In an ironic comparison with Soviet Jews who for decades were not permitted to leave the USSR, Vanunu could practically be labeled "a Prisoner of Zion."
Authorities claim that if he were allowed to move abroad and start a new life -- apparently as a fervent Christian now -- Vanunu could still harm Israel by revealing secrets.
Israel's security and intelligence establishment is not forgiving toward Mordecai Vanunu. Yet they claim it would only be fair for the CIA and other U.S. agencies to drop their harsh attitude toward Jonathan Pollard and signal the President that it would be okay to set him free.
There are valid parallels. Both Pollard and Vanunu were convicted of betraying their countries' secrets. They both appear to have had ideological motives: Pollard, believing he was protecting the Jewish state by providing information that the U.S. was not passing along to Israel; and Vanunu, who had sympathies with the Palestinians and was also alarmed by the dangers to the world of nuclear proliferation - seeing what he believed to be bombs being built right before his eyes at Dimona.
Pollard was recruited and run by a small intelligence unit within Israel's defense ministry called Lakam -- a Hebrew acronym for the Science Liaison Bureau. Ironically, Lakam was also in charge of the security and secrecy of Israel's nuclear program.
Lakam was run by a longtime Israeli operative (in the Mossad and the domestic agency Shin Bet), Rafi Eitan, who later in life would be a member of Knesset with his own small party devoted to the interests of senior citizens. Eitan, who could never visit the United States after the Pollard affair was exposed, continues to insist that everything he did was fully authorized.
The fact is that Israeli intelligence gathered information in the U.S. from 1948, the founding of the State of Israel, until Pollard's arrest in 1985. Israel has publicly pledged not to do it anymore, but the line between espionage and simply using "open sources" -- which are read, chatted with, collated and analyzed - can often be blurry. Records indicate that Eitan himself visited nuclear-related facilities in the U.S. as a visiting Israeli "scientist."
Peres, after Pollard's arrest, told the United States that the affair was a "rogue operation."
The time has come for Israel to tell the full truth. Here is a new idea (first published in Hebrew by Yossi Melman) for the Committee to Free Pollard: recruit President Shimon Peres to your campaign. Also include the men who led the intelligence agencies at the time: Nahum Admoni, who was director of the Mossad; Avraham Shalom, who served as Shin Bet chief (and is known to some movie audiences for his colorful interview in the documentary, "The Gatekeepers"); and the recently retired minister Ehud Barak, who in 1985 was commander of the military intelligence agency Aman. Ask them to write a joint letter to their friends in the American intelligence community, to the Justice Department, and to President Obama.
Melman suggests the letter should open with these words, more or less: "We were responsible for the recruiting and running of Jonathan Pollard -- or we knew about his work and benefited from it. That was for the sake of the security of Israel, as we saw it." The letter should certainly include a sincere apology, a request for forgiveness, and a plea for Pollard's release on humanitarian grounds.
That way the American authorities would not simply see the case as a haughty demand for early release by a notorious criminal who may or may not feel honestly regretful. It is possible that an original and new approach such as this could touch the hearts of the even the most stony U.S. intelligence authorities who tend never to forgive "an insider" who betrays his legal obligations of secrecy as a trusted government employee.
Even if this approach does not help visibly, it surely could not hurt. A step toward the truth, with an honest plea, could lead the way toward putting this episode -- a festering irritation between the United States and Israel -- behind us.
Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv are co-authors of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the new Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. They blog at IsraelSpy.com.