Netanyahu mulls public call for release of Israeli spy

08:13, December 22, 2010      

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is contemplating a request by Jonathan Pollard to issue a public, formal call to U.S. President Barack Obama to order his immediate release from prison.

American-born Pollard, a former civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.

In a meeting with Pollard's wife Esther Pollard at the Knesset parliament on Monday, Netanyahu said he would decide within 24 hours whether to accept her husband's request and publicly call on Obama to commute his life sentence to time served.

The prime minister is expected to announce his decision on Tuesday evening.

Esther Pollard was overcome with emotions as she handed Netanyahu a letter her husband dictated over the telephone an hour before the meeting. "I'm prepared to take the risks involved in the implications of such a move (a formal appeal). Thanks for the attention and for any action for my release," the letter read, local Hebrew-language daily Ma'ariv reported on Tuesday.

Emphasizing that her husband's health is fast deteriorating behind bars, Esther Pollard implored Netanyahu to change his tactics by ceasing to discuss her husband's fate with the U.S. administration behind closed doors.

"If you do not make this call now, there may very well not be another opportunity (for Pollard's release from prison alive)," Esther was quoted by the newspaper as telling Netanyahu.

Lawmakers Uri Ariel of the National Unity party and Ronit Tirosh of the Kadima party, both of whom lead the "Free Pollard" lobby in the Knesset, had also participated in the meeting, as well as Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense in the Regan administration.

In response, Netanyahu told the delegation that he had already "worked hard" during his first premiership to release Pollard, who last month marked his 25th year in incarceration at a federal prison in North Carolina.

"I almost succeeded (in securing Pollard's release) and I intend to continue trying during my second tenure as prime minister," said Netanyahu, adding "I've raised the issue at least six times in meetings with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the past two months."

Esther Pollard declined a request to comment on her meeting with Netanyahu, saying personal reasons prevent her from speaking with the press at the moment.

Korb, one of several high-profile U.S. officials who over the past decade pleaded U.S. administration to grant Pollard clemency, offered Netanyahu a draft of a formal request to Obama that he had prepared, which he said he believed could persuade the U.S. president.

"We feel the need to speak publicly at this time, because according to U.S. laws, Pollard's punishment does not fit the crime he committed. He has expressed remorse and had good behavior in prison," read part of the draft.

Netanyahu, who visited Pollard in prison in 2002, questioned Korb on the effectiveness of a public appeal, raising the possibility that it might do more harm than good.

"There's a growing awareness among U.S. Congressmen regarding the great injustice done to Pollard. Forty of them signed a petition (in September) calling on Obama to pardon him," parliamentarian Uri Ariel told Xinhua in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

"The communication between those legislators and Obama on this issue is a bit hesitant since the Israeli government has never filed an official request for Pollard's release," he said.

Asked why Netanyahu is reluctant to issue a public call, Ariel suggested that the "real reason" may be traced back to the Wye Plantation summit in 1998, during which Netanyahu secured a promise from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton that Pollard would be "with him on the flight back to Israel."

"When Clinton tried to act on his promise, the entire U.S. intelligence community cried in protest and he had no choice but to back out," said Ariel.

"Netanyahu was traumatized by the experience, mostly because of the embarrassment it caused him in the Israeli public. I believe Netanyahu is simply pressured by the Pollard issue and doesn't want to deal with it anymore," he added.

Sources close to Netanyahu denied claims he was afraid of the political fallout in case a personal, formal request to Obama would fail, saying that the prime minister was unsure if such an approach was the ideal strategy, according to a report in The Jerusalem Post.

Source: Xinhua

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