Jewish American Jonathan Pollard has been held in prison for nearly three decades for passing American secrets to Israel. But his possible release may be the key to keeping the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from collapsing.
Israeli officials have long pleaded with U.S. officials to free Pollard, now 59, but American leaders, including President Barack Obama, have just as steadfastly refused. Mr. Obama told Israeli television a year ago he has "no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard," but said he would make sure Pollard's case would undergo normal reviews.
Pollard, reported to be in poor health at a prison in the mid-Atlantic state of North Carolina, is eligible for parole in November 2015, 30 years after his arrest.
But U.S. officials are reported considering his release as soon as the start of Passover in mid-April, as an incentive for Israel to continue the latest round of peace talks with Palestinian leaders.
Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he was recruited by Israeli agents in the 1980s. He was paid $50,000 and expected to get much more for passing thousands of classified documents to his Israeli handlers, including U.S. satellite data on Soviet weaponry.
His leaks eventually drew the attention of his colleagues, who alerted U.S. authorities. Pollard was arrested as he unsuccessfully sought asylum at the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Pollard's case is unusual in that he was caught spying for a U.S. ally. Israeli officials have long championed his bid for freedom. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was out of office, visited the imprisoned Pollard in 2002.
Some researchers looking at Pollard's case say his spy efforts were more extensive than just working for Israel. Former U.S. naval intelligence officials have claimed Pollard offered U.S. secrets to three other countries before working for the Israelis, and to a fourth nation while carrying out the spying for Tel Aviv.
But some prominent U.S. officials say the life prison term Pollard was handed after pleading guilty to espionage is excessive. The 2008 Republican U.S. presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and one-time Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey have all called for Pollard's release.