Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked the United States to allow convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to return immediately to Israel upon his upcoming release from a federal prison, Israeli media outlets repoted on Thursday.
According to the reports, Netanyahu has been lobbying Washington to let Pollard travel to Israel instead of completing his five years' parole in the United States. A spokesman for Netanyahu would not confirm the report.
The three-decade imprisonment in the US of Pollard, 61, has been a source of diplomatic tension between the two allies. He has been serving a life sentence but was granted parole this year under sentencing rules at the time of his prosecution. He is expected to be released on Friday from a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett praised Pollard as a hero Thursday, even as Netanyahu instructed officials to keep quiet over the sensitive issue of the release. Under the terms of Pollard's release, he is not allowed to leave the US for five years.
"The people of Israel embrace him," Bennett told Army Radio, though he added that he had been asked "not to speak expansively" about Pollard's release.
"Pollard was an emissary of the State of Israel for good and bad," Bennett added. "He did not do it for himself but for the people of Israel. And we are happy he will finally be released."
Pollard was a Navy intelligence analyst when he was arrested in 1985 for selling secrets to Israel. 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.
The US last year hinted at freeing Pollard early as an incentive for Israel to continue negotiating with Palestinians. But the peace effort collapsed and Pollard remained in prison. He also came up for parole last year but was denied.
Pollard's supporters, including many Israeli citizens, long maintained he provided information critical to Israel's security interests at a time when the country was under threat from its Middle East neighbors. US officials condemned him as a traitor.
Although the decision from the US Parole Commission nearly coincided with a fierce disagreement between the US and the Israeli governments over a nuclear deal with Iran, officials from both countries denied the release was tied to that agreement, or was intended as a concession to Israel.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at Israel's Bar Ilan University, said that the quiet response in Jerusalem over Pollard's upcoming release was intentional.
"A hero's welcome in Israel will be interpreted in the US as justification for keeping (Pollard) so long in prison," Gilboa said. "And it would confirm the argument that Israel did not learn the lesson: you don't praise an American spy. You have to admit your mistakes."