JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis are rallying behind convicted spy Jonathan Pollard like never before, urging the U.S. on Sunday to let the former Pentagon analyst leave prison to attend his father's funeral.
Israelis widely feel that after 25 years behind bars, Pollard has been excessively punished, and they seem puzzled over the U.S. refusal to set him free, despite recent calls for his release from some prominent former American officials.
Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he copied and gave to his Israeli handlers enough classified documents to fill a walk-in closet.
Arrested in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Pollard was convicted and sentenced to life in prison two years later. Pollard is scheduled for release in 2015, according to a U.S. Justice Department Web site.
Nachman Shai, an Israeli lawmaker leading a campaign on Pollard's behalf, said Israel has done everything it reasonably could to repair the damage done by the scandal.
"Israel has already apologized," he said. "Israel accepted responsibility."
It also pledged years ago to halt espionage against its main ally.
Pollard advocates claim that other spies convicted of far worse crimes against America — including on behalf of actually hostile nations — have received lesser sentences and have been released earlier than Pollard.
The U.S. defense establishment is considered hostile to the idea of clemency, claiming Pollard caused huge, but largely undisclosed, damage.
Once a niche cause for the Israeli right, the Pollard campaign is now an issue that unites most Israelis. It is a rarity in this politically divided country, and it is reflected in the origins of the petition — in Shai's opposition centrist Kadima Party.
Nearly two-thirds of the members of Israel's parliament signed the call asking that Pollard be allowed to attend his father's funeral Monday in Indiana, and dozens rallied for Pollard in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has personally appealed for Pollard's freedom as well.
"The Americans have still not figured out how principled an issue this is for the Israeli people," wrote Ben Caspit, the normally liberal-leaning chief columnist for the Maariv daily. "It is simply an issue of humanity. To let him say a final goodbye to his father after spending 25 years in jail, you don't have to be 'Israel's best friend.' You simply have to be a human being."
Caspit suggested that Israeli officials boycott the annual July 4 party at the U.S. ambassador's home because of America's "cruelty and brutality" in the matter. Pollard's mother died in 2001, and he was not allowed to see her or attend her funeral.
Shai, who collected 73 signatures from the 120 lawmakers, said a similar petition last week, calling for Pollard to visit his dying father in the hospital, was ignored. "It's a very humanitarian issue, nothing to do with any political business or security," he said.
Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi called the uproar over Pollard "typical Israeli hypocrisy" — since "Israel consistently refuses to allow Palestinian prisoners attend their parents' funerals."
Israeli prison officials were not available for comment.
Pollard's Israeli lawyer, Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, said she believes his harsh punishment initially derived from a personal vendetta of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who pushed for a heavy sentence despite a plea bargain that would have sent Pollard to prison for a shorter term.
She said Israel's refusal for years to acknowledge that Pollard was in fact its operative has harmed his chances for clemency ever since. Israel accepted responsibility for the affair only the following decade.
Pollard, 56, was granted Israeli citizenship during Netanyahu's first tenure as prime minister, in the late 1990s. Later, when he was out of office, Netanyahu visited Pollard in prison. In January, Netanyahu made a formal appeal to the U.S. for his release and on Sunday his office said it had contacted Washington in hopes of at least getting him out for the funeral.
A string of top American officials, including former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, have also lobbied for Pollard's freedom.
"We are in Obama's hands now," Darshan-Leitner said.
Before he died, Morris Pollard, 95, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, said he couldn't sleep at night because of his son's incarceration. He called it "an overwhelming miscarriage of justice."
Pollard wife, Esther, said she hoped her husband would be allowed to bury his father after not being able to see him in person.
"Right now we are just so brokenhearted, because Morris so much wanted to see Jonathan before he died, and Jonathan wanted so much to part from his father like a real loving son," she said, in tears. "He just wanted to say goodbye to his dad, and he never got a chance."