JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Nobel-laureate president, backed by thousands of followers, is leading an effort to press President Barack Obama during his upcoming visit to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, ending one of the most painful episodes between the two allies.
Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing classified material to Israel.
Pollard is said to be in poor health, and his case has become a rallying cry in Israel. Leaders routinely call for his release and say his 28 years in prison are excessive punishment. But stiff opposition from the American military and intelligence community has deterred a string of American presidents from releasing him.
Next month's visit by Obama, coupled with a perceived softening of the American stance, is raising hopes that Pollard, 58, may finally get his freedom.
More than 65,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling on Obama to free Pollard, the Facebook page of the U.S. embassy in Israel has been flooded with pardon requests and a nationwide campaign began Tuesday urging President Shimon Peres to push for Pollard's release. He quickly agreed.
In a video clip, Peres is shown receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama. The camera then pulls back, showing the wall of a prison cell with the following message: "Mr. President, please save me. J. Pollard."
Speaking to high school students Tuesday, Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, said he would try.
"I intend to raise the issue of Jonathan Pollard during my meeting with President Obama," he said. "(I) will do everything I can to convey this clear message: Jonathan Pollard must be released from prison on humanitarian grounds."
Pollard, a Jewish civilian intelligence analyst, was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel and received a life sentence. He is eligible for parole in two years. With little time left on his sentence, Israelis believe it would pose little risk for Obama to free Pollard.
The Pollard affair is enmeshed in highly fraught issues. One is the very idea of spying against an ally — especially a country's primary patron. Another is the delicate issue of suspected dual loyalties among American Jews, and their own concerns about being seen in such a light.
Once a niche cause of the Israeli religious right wing, the call for Pollard's freedom has now become a matter of consensus in Israel. A wide range of politicians, artists and Nobel Prize winners have embraced Pollard's cause. The influential writers A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — leading voices of the Israeli peace camp — and former President Yitzhak Navon are among the prominent names backing the calls for his release.
"Both he (Pollard) and Israel have repeatedly expressed remorse. We have learned our lesson and have been living with the painful consequences for nearly three decades," their petition reads. "It is our fervent hope and prayer that your upcoming trip to Israel will bring us the good news we have waited for, for so very long, and that this tragic and painful episode can finally be put to rest once and for all."
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he plans to honor Pollard with the "Jerusalem Freedom Award," which represents "the goal of the Jewish people to be free in our land," according to the municipality.
White House officials say there is no change in policy and no plans to free Pollard.
Aaron David Miller, a former American Mideast peace envoy who served under six U.S. secretaries of state, said freedom seemed like a long shot.
"A Pollard release would certainly make Netanyahu's day," Miller said, but would risk angering many in Washington.
Advocates note that some of those convicted for spying for American enemies have served far shorter prison terms.
Even after all these years, many details of the case remain a mystery. Pollard delivered piles of documents to his handlers, and their full extent has never been disclosed.
Pollard's lawyer, Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, said the material had traditionally been shared with the Israelis. She said the information included details about Arab and Soviet military capabilities, and it helped Israel carry assassinate a senior PLO official in Tunisia in 1988.
Darshan-Leitner said Pollard suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney stones. "His medical condition is very precarious," she said.
A recently declassified 1987 CIA damage assessment concluded that Pollard did not spy against America. According to the version published in December by the National Security Archive, a George Washington University project, Pollard cooperated "in good faith" while in custody and his handlers' requests were limited to intelligence on the Pakistanis, Arab states and the Soviets.
Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in the late 1990s during Netanyahu's first term. While Netanyahu was out of office, he visited Pollard in prison, Last year, Netanyahu made a formal appeal to the U.S. for his release and a personal plea to allow him to attend his father's funeral. The requests were denied.
For years, the Americans resisted an early release by saying it would harm national security. The stiff punishment was also seen as a deterrent to allies, warning them of the consequences of spying on American soil. But opposition has begun to crack, raising hopes that a breakthrough may be near.
Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, along with Lawrence Korb, the assistant secretary of defense at the time, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Sen. John McCain and former Vice President Dan Quayle have all called for Pollard's release in recent years.
Pollard's wife, Esther, said that given these developments, and the passage of time, the moment was ripe for Obama "to right this injustice."
"I pray that President Obama will respond without any further delay," she said in an email message.
AP International Political Writer Steven R. Hurst in Washington contributed.
Follow Heller on Twitter (at)aronhellerap.