JERUSALEM (AP) — Jonathan Pollard, who spent 30 years in U.S. prison for spying for Israel, arrived in Israel early Wednesday with his wife, triumphantly kissing the ground as he exited the aircraft in the culmination of a decades-long affair that had long strained relations between the two close allies.
Pollard was welcomed at Israel’s international airport by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who presented him and his wife Esther with Israeli ID cards granting them citizenship.
“Welcome back. How good you’ve come home,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement issued by his office. He said they could start new lives in Israel, “in freedom and happiness.”
“We are ecstatic to be home at last,” said Pollard.
The statement also quoted Pollard as saying he was “very excited to be home” after a 35-year ordeal. He thanked Netanyahu and the Jewish people for supporting him.
A video released by Netanyahu’s office showed Pollard walking down the stairs of the plane and kissing the ground.
Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, sold military secrets to Israel while working at the Pentagon in the 1980s. He was arrested in 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and pleaded guilty. The espionage affair embarrassed Israel and tarnished its relations with the United States for years.
Pollard was given a life sentence and U.S. defense and intelligence officials consistently argued against releasing Pollard. But after serving 30 years in federal prison, he was released on Nov. 20, 2015, and placed on a five-year parole period that ended in November. That cleared the way for him to leave the U.S.
Pollard, 66, arrived on a plane owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a strong supporter of Netanyahu and President Donald Trump.
Pictures of the plane Pollard matched the color scheme of aircraft owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., the hotel and casino company owned by Adelson. Flight-tracking data showed a Boeing 737 owned by the company, tail number N108MS, left Newark to Ben-Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv.
Pollard’s arrival was first reported by Israel Hayom, a newspaper owned by Adelson. The newspaper published photos of Pollard and his wife, both wearing masks, on what it said was a private plane that arrived early Wednesday from Newark, New Jersey. It said the private flight was necessary due to the medical needs of Esther Pollard, who is undergoing treatments for cancer. The newspaper’s editor, Boaz Bismuth, called it “the most exciting day” of his four-decade journalism career.
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 station.
The Ynet website said the couple was in quarantine, which is mandatory for all returning Israelis as a measure to guard against the spread of the coronavirus. The country has barred the arrival of all tourists, but appeared to be welcoming the couple as Israelis.
Pollard’s release was the latest in a long line of diplomatic gifts given to Netanyahu by President Donald Trump. His arrival in Israel gives the embattled Netanyahu a welcome boost as he fights for reelection in March 23 parliamentary elections.
Netanyahu has been one of Trump’s closest allies on the international stage. Over the past four years, Trump has recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to the holy city. In other departures from traditional U.S. positions, he also has recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, said that Israeli West Bank settlements are not illegal and brokered a series of diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab nations.