- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 26, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Nobel-laureate president, backed by thousands of followers, is leading an effort to press President Obama during his upcoming visit to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, ending one of the most painful episodes between the two allies.

Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing classified material to Israel.

Pollard is said to be in poor health, and his case has become a rallying cry in Israel. Leaders routinely call for his release and say his 28 years in prison is excessive punishment. But stiff opposition from the American military and intelligence community has deterred a string of American presidents from releasing him.

Next month’s visit to Israel by Mr. Obama, coupled with a perceived softening of the American stance, is raising hopes that Pollard, 58, finally may get his freedom.

More than 65,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling on Mr. Obama to free Pollard, the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Israel has been flooded with pardon requests, and a nationwide campaign began Tuesday urging Israeli President Shimon Peres to push for Pollard’s release. He quickly agreed.

In a video clip, Mr. Peres is shown receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Obama. The camera then pulls back, showing the wall of a prison cell with the following message: “Mr. President, please save me. J. Pollard.”

Speaking to high school students Tuesday, Mr. Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, said he would try.

“I intend to raise the issue of Jonathan Pollard during my meeting with President Obama,” he said. “(I) will do everything I can to convey this clear message: Jonathan Pollard must be released from prison on humanitarian grounds.”

Pollard, a Jewish civilian intelligence analyst, was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel and received a life sentence. He is eligible for parole in two years. With little time left on his sentence, Israelis believe it would pose little risk for Obama to free Pollard.

The Pollard affair is enmeshed in highly fraught issues. One is the very idea of spying against an ally — especially a country’s primary patron. Another is the delicate issue of suspected dual loyalties among American Jews and their own concerns about being seen in such a light.

Once a niche cause of the Israeli religious right wing, the call for Pollard’s freedom now become a matter of consensus in Israel. A wide range of politicians, artists and Nobel Prize winners have embraced Pollard’s cause. The influential writers A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — leading voices of the Israeli peace camp — and former President Yitzhak Navon are among the prominent names backing the calls for his release.

“Both he (Pollard) and Israel have repeatedly expressed remorse. We have learned our lesson and have been living with the painful consequences for nearly three decades,” their petition reads. “It is our fervent hope and prayer that your upcoming trip to Israel will bring us the good news we have waited for, for so very long, and that this tragic and painful episode can finally be put to rest once and for all.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he plans to honor Pollard with the Jerusalem Freedom Award, which represents “the goal of the Jewish people to be free in our land,” according to the municipality.

White House officials say there is no change in policy and no plans to free Pollard.

Aaron David Miller, a former American Mideast peace envoy who served under six U.S. secretaries of state, said freedom seems like a long shot.

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