Convicted U.S. spy Jonathan Pollard received a warm welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrived in Israel by private jet early Wednesday, accompanied by his wife Esther.
"Welcome home," the prime minister said as he met the couple at Ben-Gurion Airport. “Now you can start life anew, with freedom and happiness. Now you are at home.”
The former U.S. naval analyst served 30 years in American prison for spying for Israel and arrived in the country after his parole restrictions expired five years after his release.
Pollard and his wife kneeled to kiss the ground as they stepped off the private jet that brought them from New Jersey's Newark International Airport.
Aviation data showed the plane is owned by U.S. billionaire couple and Netanyahu supporters Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. The Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom said Esther Pollard required a private plane due to health problems.
Netanyahu handed the couple Israeli identity cards and joined them in prayer giving thanks for their safe arrival.
“We are excited to be home at last," Pollard said. "There is no one who is more proud of this country or its leader than we are. We hope to become productive citizens as soon as possible."
Pollard and his wife, Esther will remain in quarantine and will settle in Jerusalem in a furnished apartment prepared in advance for them.
President Reuven Rivlin welcomed the couple in a tweet saying "Welcome home."
Minister of Diaspora Affairs Omer Yankelevich also welcomed the two in a tweet in Hebrew saying; "How good it is that you are home," quoting from a popular Israeli song.
But not everyone in Israel was happy at Pollards' the arrival.
"Jonathan Pollard... is not a Zionist hero," wrote Haifa University's political science professor Dr. Israel Waismel-Manor on Twitter.
He said that Pollard had delivered "a devastating blow to American Jewry by raising a dual loyalty suspicion. It would have been better if he had stayed in the US."
Pollard, 66, had long voiced a desire to emigrate to Israel, which granted him citizenship. The espionage affair strained U.S.-Israel relations for decades.
Sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage, Pollard was freed on parole in 2015.
A U.S. Justice Department decision last month to let the parole term's five-year travel ban go unrenewed was seen by some as a parting gift to Israel by the Trump administration.
Pollard was under restrictive release conditions following his parole, including wearing an electronic monitor and remaining at his home in New York at night.
Effi Lahav, head of an activist group that had campaigned for Pollard's release from prison, said Pollard had been flown on a "top secret" mission overnight.
"The fact that Esther and Jonathan arrived here in Israel excites us very much," he told the Army Radio.
One of Pollard's lawyers, Eliot Lauer, told Ynet when the parole terms were lifted that the couple's most pressing concern was the welfare of his wife, Esther, who is undergoing cancer treatment.
"I know many people are waiting for Pollard in Israel, but the first thing he needs to do is take care of his wife," Lauer said in November.
"I do not know what their immediate plans are other than to make sure Esther is okay, but obviously Jonathan is expecting to go to Israel," he said, adding that the former spy always saw himself as "a true Zionist and a citizen of Israel."
Netanyahu spoke to Pollard on the phone in November expressing the hope that the couple would travel to Israel.
"You should have now a comfortable life where you can pursue, both of you can pursue your interests," Netanyahu said.
First published: 08:06, 12.30.20