‘The Dumbest Sort of Traitor’: Israeli Spies Aren’t Exactly Rejoicing at Jonathan Pollard’s Release

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Mark Lennihan/AP
Mark Lennihan/AP

Jonathan Pollard betrayed the United States. Did Israel betray Jonathan Pollard?

One of the most infamous spy sagas in modern history whimpered to an end on Saturday, when the Justice Department let the parole restrictions imposed on former navy intelligence analyst Jonathan J. Pollard, 66, quietly expire.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement welcoming the decision.

“For many years the Prime Minister has been committed to, and consistently worked towards, securing Pollard’s release… The Prime Minister hopes to see Jonathan Pollard in Israel soon, and together with all Israelis, extends his best wishes to him and his wife Esther.”

Using the Hebrew version of Pollard’s first name, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, a Netanyahu confidant posted “Israel awaits Yonatan,” before turning around and lobbing an explosive accusation at his boss.

“After the state abandoned him for many years, we’ll finally be able to see Yonatan in Israel.”

Addressing Pollard’s wife, Edelsetin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, wrote, “Esther-- you were a warrior lioness who did not give up for a moment and for 25 years exerted every possible pressure on behalf of our friend Yonatan. I want to congratulate you and look forward to seeing you with us here at home!”

Neither Pollard has ever lived in Israel.

The Pollard affair remains one of the most controversial in Israeli history.

Edelstein’s claim was immediately disputed by Daniel Carmon, the former ambassador to India and one of Israel’s most senior diplomats, who retorted that the claim that Israel “abandoned him for many years is both incorrect and misleading.”

Edelstein’s accusation accords with Pollard’s frustration with Israel, a nation for which he claimed a special affinity, that he believes did not do enough to save him from 30 years in prison.

In 2019, The Jerusalem Post reported that Pollard, then living in New York, under onerous parole conditions, told friends he’d been “abandoned.”

“If there is any seriousness to the desire of the prime minister to bring me home, then what is he waiting for?” Pollard asked friends. “The only difference between me and the two soldiers being held in the Gaza Strip is that they are dead and I am alive. We have all been abandoned.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Israeli intelligence expert Yossi Melman partially agreed with Pollard’s claims. “Look, he shouldn’t be welcomed with street parties if he finally comes to Israel,” Melman said, “but he was definitely betrayed by Israel.”

Regarding the sentence meted out to Pollard, the only American sentenced to life in prison for passing classified information to an ally, Melman believes that Israel failed to cooperate with prosecutors so as to reduce it by one third, to twenty years.

The documents he shared with Israel included detailed satellite maps of the Middle East.

“It is clear that he was a traitor,” Melman adds, acknowledging that no matter what, Pollard faced decades in federal custody. “But Israel could have helped moderate it.”

One active duty Israeli air force intelligence officer, who was not authorized to speak on the record, referred to Pollard as “the worst, the dumbest sort of traitor,” adding that “serious Israelis” felt only shame and disgust about the episode. “If the American’s release him, fine, he’s paid the price. But I just don’t care.”

Ram Ben Barak, a legislator for the center-left Yesh Atid party, who retired in 2011 as deputy director of the Mossad, Israel’s vaunted intelligence agency, says that while Pollard’s recruitment and operation “were unknown by the intelligence leadership, and unauthorized,” they caused enormous damage, unjustified by the knowledge Israel acquired.

“Our entire relationship with the U.S. deteriorated because of this. People lost jobs over it. It made for years and years of suspicion, with Americans suspecting he wasn’t the only one, and feeling that they hadn’t gotten the necessary explanations. They didn’t believe it wasn’t authorized. It caused huge, huge damage. They saw it as a betrayal of them.”

Israel provided the Americans with plenty of reasons to be suspicious.

The Israeli government apologized to the United States in 1987, and acknowledged having some role in Pollard's espionage, but waited for more than a decade before it acknowledged paying him. Israel never returned the stolen material it acquired through Pollard, reportedly supplying U.S. investigators with only a few dozen insignificant documents out of the tens of thousands it received.

Pollard remains one of the most baffling figures in the history of late Cold War espionage, starting 40 years ago, when he was hired as a civilian intelligence analyst by the U.S. Navy despite having flagged as a prolific drug user by the CIA.

Melman said that the same lack of coordination that later hampered intelligence agencies’ ability to act against al Qaeda terror in the United States led to Pollard being hired as a navy analyst when he was “known to be problematic, unreliable and a ‘spy freak.’”

Pollard’s first contact with official Israel came shortly thereafter, when he met Aviem Sella, then a senior Israeli air force officer on sabbatical in New York, where he was working towards a master’s degree.

Presenting himself as an employee of U.S. naval intelligence, Pollard told Sella he believed the United States was withholding information from Israel, and offered his services as a spy. Sella informed the air force chief of staff of the approach, receiving permission to develop a cautious relationship with Pollard.

It is unclear when, and even if, Israel’s formal intelligence echelons became aware of the operation.

Melman, co-author of the book Spies Against Armageddon, a history of Israeli intelligence, rejects the notion that Israeli authorities were unaware of the spy Pollard, and believes he was forsaken in a messy attempt by top Israeli authorities to separate themselves from the scandal.

“Of course they had authorized it,” Melman says. “Sella got permission. That’s how these things work. Let’s say he went without proper authorization. When he got back, he informed the air force commander, who then informed the Israeli army chief of staff, who then informed the defense minister. They may have said to themselves, ‘we’re not spying against the U.S., we’re just using American information on nations in our region’—and that is true. But they knew.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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