WASHINGTON — Jonathan Pollard, the Navy intelligence analyst whose 1985 arrest for selling secrets to Israel set off a sensational spy saga, is scheduled to be released from federal prison next week, marking the end of a three-decade diplomatic burr in the relationship between the two allies.
Pollard, 61, had been serving a life sentence, but was granted parole this year under sentencing rules in place at the time of his prosecution that made him presumptively eligible for release this month.
Although the decision from the U.S. Parole Commission came around the same time as a sharp disagreement between the U.S. and the Israeli governments over a nuclear deal with Iran, officials from both countries have strongly denied the release was in any way tied to that arrangement, or was intended as a concession to Israel.
The release, scheduled for next Friday, caps a case that divided public opinion in Israel and America and has been a periodic source of legal and diplomatic wrangling between the two countries.
"In terms of the quantity of stuff he gave away and the classification and the damage to relations, it certainly was a significant case," said Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University who has written on Pollard.
Pollard's plans aren't immediately clear. His lawyers said after the parole decision in July that he had lined up a job and housing in the New York area and that he intended to ask President Barack Obama for clemency and permission to move to Israel immediately. Parolees are required to get government permission for foreign travel for five years after their release.
But the White House quickly shot down that prospect, saying Pollard had committed "very serious crimes" and that the president had "no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard's parole."
One of his lawyers, Eliot Lauer, did not respond this week to questions about Pollard's future and said his client would not be available for an interview.
The real question, said Washington national security lawyer Mark Zaid, is "not about releasing him, because he's going to be released. He's served his time and his sentence is up ... It's more about, 'OK, where does he go?' "
The case attracted international attention when Pollard was arrested on Nov. 21, 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty a year later to conspiracy to commit espionage and was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison. He has argued that his guilty plea was coerced and that his sentence was excessive.
Justice Department lawyers did not object to Pollard's release during a hearing this year that took into account Pollard's behavior in prison and whether he was likely to commit new crimes if released. Under sentencing rules, he was eligible for parole after spending 30 years in custody.
Though next Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of his arrest, Pollard is actually due out Friday from the Butner, N.C., prison because releases aren't scheduled on weekends or holidays, said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross.
The case has long been a source of tension between the two countries. American presidents have repeatedly denied Pollard's release even as the Israeli government has for years sought his freedom. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in the 1990s and recognized him as an Israeli agent. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in July that he had "consistently raised the issue of (Pollard's) release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive U.S. administrations."
The U.S. last year dangled the prospect of freeing Pollard early as part of a package of incentives to keep Israel at the negotiating table during talks with the Palestinians. But the peace effort collapsed and Pollard remained in prison.
Pollard's supporters, including many Israeli citizens, have long maintained he was punished too harshly for spying on behalf of a U.S. ally and that he provided information critical to Israel's security interests at a time when the country was under threat from its Middle East neighbors. But U.S. officials have condemned him as a traitor who provided volumes of classified information to Israel, including about radar-jamming techniques and the electronic capabilities of nations hostile to Israel, including Saudi Arabia.
A damage analysis prepared by the U.S. government after Pollard's arrest found that he had "eagerly seized an opportunity to volunteer his services to Israeli intelligence," and after receiving formal instructions and operational planning, began making large biweekly deliveries of classified material and collected a monthly salary for it. Pollard drew the suspicion of a U.S. intelligence supervisor for the large amounts of classified information that he was handling on topics that were unrelated to his official duties on North America and the Caribbean.
A lasting consequence of the case is unusual suspicion within U.S. intelligence toward those who maintain deep Israeli contacts or have spent time there, said Zaid, a lawyer who represents whistleblowers and handles national security matters. But he said that for much of the public, there's little recollection about it.
"Frankly, I don't think the general public remembers him," Zaid said. "It's part of history. It's a generation ago."