Some 70,000 Israelis have signed an online petition asking President Shimon Peres to use his upcoming meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to seek the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Peres is traveling to Washington this week to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the U.S. president.
According to Army Radio, a long list of politicians and public figures have endorsed the petition, including former Hamas captive Gilad Schalit, singers Shlomo Artzi and Yehoram Gaon, authors Amoz Oz, David Grossman, Aharon Appelfeld and A.B. Yehoshua, and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.
"With our signatures, we are not asking Mr. Peres to refuse the Medal of Freedom," reads the petition. "Nor are we asking Mr. Peres to link his receipt of the medal to Pollard's release. We are asking only that Mr. Peres use his superior diplomatic skills immediately and intensively to pull Pollard out of harm's way before he receives the medal from President Obama. Once Pollard is home, we can all breathe easier and take pride in this great honor that Mr. Peres is slated to receive."
Several Israeli Nobel laureates have also affixed their name to the petition, including Professor Aaaron Ciechanover, Dan Shechtman and Robert Aumann, Army Radio reported. The radio station quoted Aumann as saying, "We must make our every effort to release an agent who worked for the Israeli government, which has continued to turn its back on him for many years."
Former President Yitzhak Navon also signed the petition and said Pollard had suffered enough. "He might have committed a crime and got his punishment, but the crime does not fit the punishment," Navon said. "He has been in prison for years on end; it is time for some measure of mercy."
Pollard has been in jail in the U.S. for some 26 years as part of a life sentence he received for sharing sensitive intelligence with Israel during the 1980s. Successive U.S. presidents have turned down Israeli requests for clemency, and vowed that he will serve out his sentence, which will make him eligible for parole in 2015. During Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first term in office, in 1998, he asked President Bill Clinton to pardon Pollard while visiting the U.S. for peace talks. Clinton reportedly refused the request after then-CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign over the issue.
The recent campaign to release Pollard took off after Obama announced his decision to award Peres the medal — the highest civilian distinction in the U.S. — at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March. Some went so far as to ask Peres to forego the medal so long as Pollard's sentence was not commuted. Last week several bereaved families met with Peres and asked him to work for Pollard's release. During the meeting Peres said that he would raise the issue when he meets Obama this week.
After Peres wrote a personal letter to Obama last April urging him to consider a pardon, the White House said the administration's view on Pollard had not changed. At the time, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Israel Hayom that U.S. officials were convinced Pollard was not working alone when he spied for Israel as a civilian intelligence analyst and would therefore make a release conditional on Israel acknowledging this claim, which Ayalon called "baseless."
In October, Vice President Joe Biden told the New York Times that he had nipped a presidential pardon in the bud. “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time.’ If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”
In April, Peres met with Pollard's wife, Esther, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, just days after the Israeli spy was taken to the hospital on Passover Eve because of failing health. During the meeting Esther Pollard said she did not want to become a widow and that "Jonathan's strength is waning."
"Mr. President, time is running out ... Nobody in Israel has as great a status as you in Washington and I ask that you use this great influence on Jonathan's behalf,” she said. “Jonathan's strength is slipping away and I do not know what will happen the next time I receive a telephone call about his health problems."
Peres plans to raise the issue of Pollard's release shortly before the ceremony at the White House and make the case for clemency on humanitarian grounds, citing the long time he has spent in prison and his poor health.