Israel gives hero's welcome to American spy Jonathan Pollard

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Jonathan Pollard, an American jailed in the United States in 1985 for spying for Israel, landed in the Jewish state Wednesday to a hero's welcome led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pollard, 66, served 30 years in prison for passing on classified documents when he served as a US Navy intelligence analyst, and had been confined to the United States under his parole terms since his 2015 release.

After years of Israeli lobbying to allow Pollard, a Jewish American, to leave, the US Justice Department removed the terms and conditions last month.

Pollard and his wife Esther arrived in Israel before dawn Wednesday and were seen walking off a plane toward a waiting Netanyahu, who raised his hand in welcome, in a video distributed by the prime minister's office.

Pollard, with a kippa scullcap and a long white beard, then removed his face mask, got down on his hands and knees and kissed the Israeli ground, with Esther following suit.

Netanyahu and Pollard said traditional Jewish blessings before the premier handed an Israeli identity card to the old spy, who was granted citizenship in 1995.

"You're home," the Israeli premier told the two.

- 'Ecstatic to be home' -

Pollard's arrival was widely celebrated, with President Reuven Rivlin and other politicians sending welcome tweets.

The authority in charge of Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv released a recording of the pilot requesting permission to land.

The Pollards flew in on a private jet owned by Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, which touched down just before 3 am, said transport sector journalist Itay Blumental.

Pollard said he and Esther were "ecstatic to be home at last after 35 years, and we thank the people and the prime minister of Israel for bringing us home".

"We hope to become productive citizens as soon and as quickly as possible and to get on with our lives here."

The former spy and his wife then went into quarantine, after which they plan to move to a home in Jerusalem, Israeli lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who represented Pollard, told army radio.

Israel on Sunday imposed its third nationwide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus. Current restrictions compel anyone entering the country to spend at least 10 days in a government-selected hotel.

- Crucial intelligence -

Pollard as a US Navy intelligence analyst in the 1980s made contact with an Israeli colonel in New York and began sending US secrets to Israel in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.

Pollard passed thousands of crucial US documents to Israel which, when it was revealed, strained relations between the two close allies.

Intelligence from Pollard helped Israel plan an October 1985 raid on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's Tunis headquarters, which killed around 60 people, according to CIA documents declassified in 2012.

He was arrested in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison two years later, despite pleading guilty in a deal which his attorneys had expected would lead to a more lenient sentence.

After his release in 2015, he was kept in the United States by parole rules and not allowed to travel to Israel, the home of his wife whom he had married while behind bars.

Pollard remained subject to a curfew, had to wear a wrist monitor, and was prohibited from working for any company whose computer system lacked special US government monitoring software.

Israel repeatedly pressured Washington to allow him to move to the Jewish state. The US intelligence community has reportedly remained deeply opposed to granting Pollard the early release.