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Jonathan Pollard, Cold War Spy Who Spent 30 Years In U.S. Prison, Arrives In Israel

Updated at 4:10 a.m. ET

Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst who spent three decades in prison after pleading guilty to spying for the Israelis, has arrived in Israel a month after the U.S. Justice Department declined to extend his parole.

Pollard and his wife, Esther, landed early Wednesday at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv aboard a private jet owned by Sheldon Adelson, a major backer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The couple stepped off the plane, got on their knees, and kissed the tarmac — a religious Jewish custom upon arrival to the Holy Land. Netanyahu met the Pollards at the airport, greeting them with the Jewish blessing Sheheckhiyanu, praising God for the milestone, and another blessing praising God for freeing the imprisoned.

Esther — who is reportedly undergoing chemotherapy for cancer — is seeking medical treatment in Israel, but the couple reportedly plans to permanently emigrate to there.

"Finally in the country. Jonathan Pollard landed tonight in Israel," read a headline in Israel Hayom showing a picture of Pollard and his wife, wearing masks, as they arrived from Newark, N.J.

Pollard, who is Jewish, was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 while still incarcerated in the U.S. His lawyer, Eliot Lauer, told The Times of Israel that Pollard arriving in Israel "speaks for itself. A dream realized after 35 very difficult years."

Pollard was arrested in 1985 and charged with espionage for Israel. He later pleaded guilty, but was still sentenced to life in prison. At the time, he claimed that he only stole secrets for a U.S. ally because "the American intelligence establishment collectively endangered Israel's security by withholding crucial information."

Prosecutors said while serving as a Navy analyst in the mid-1980s and handling classified material, Pollard made contact with an Israeli intelligence agent in New York and began funneling suitcases full of U.S. secrets to Israel in exchange for gifts and tens of thousands of dollars.

The intelligence handed to Israel included top-secret satellite photos and information about Soviet weaponry and Soviet support of Arab countries, according to a now-declassified "damage assessment" by U.S. intelligence.

The discovery of Pollard's spying severely strained U.S.-Israeli relations.

Although Israeli activists had repeatedly lobbied for a reduction in his sentence, U.S. officials, citing the damage they said Pollard did to American intelligence gathering, strongly objected.

"The Navy program was really shaken by what he had done right under their noses," Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official who joined Navy intelligence as a reservist around the Pollard was arrested, was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

At the time of his release from federal prison in Butner, N.C., in 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "As someone who raised Jonathan's case for years with successive American presidents, I had long hoped this day would come."

Last month, five years after his release, the Justice Department allowed Pollard's parole to expire, freeing him to travel to Israel.

The Justice Department's move to end Pollard's parole is widely seen as a parting gift from President Trump to Netanyahu, who had enjoyed close relations, as Trump readies to leave office next month. Pollard's arrival in Israel could give Netanyahu, who is in a bitter reelection battle, a political boost.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.