Israel welcomes former spy in U.S. after 30 years in jail

TEL AVIV — A former U.S. Navy analyst who served 30 years in jail for spying for Israel arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, kissing the ground as he was welcomed with a prayer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As a civilian intelligence analyst, Jonathan Pollard, 66, sold military secrets to Israel in the 1980s. He was arrested in 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and pleaded guilty.

He was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment, but was released in 2015 on parole.

Convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard leaves U.S. District court in the Manhattan borough of New York on Nov. 20, 2015.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

The espionage affair involving Pollard became a decades-long sticking point between the U.S. and its ally, Israel, but a U.S. Justice Department decision last month to let Pollard’s parole terms’ five-year travel ban go un-renewed was seen by some as a parting gift to Netanyahu by President Donald Trump. It could give the Israeli leader a welcome boost as he fights for reelection in next year’s parliamentary elections.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu met Pollard and his wife Esther on the tarmac as they disembarked in Tel Aviv, the prime minister’s office said.

The couple kissed the ground as they left the plane.

“We are ecstatic to be home at last after 35 years,” Pollard was quoted as saying by Netanyahu’s office as he was greeted by the prime minister.

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After saying a Hebrew prayer of thanksgiving, Netanyahu presented Pollard with an Israeli identity card and told him and his wife: “Now you can start life anew, with freedom and happiness. Now you are at home,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

“We hope to become productive citizens as soon and as quickly as possible and to get on with our lives here,” Pollard said, according to the statement.

After Pollard’s arrival, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin and several lawmakers tweeted congratulations and greetings to the Pollards, who left from the airport for an undisclosed location.

Effi Lahav, head of an activist group that had campaigned for Pollard’s release from prison, told the Associated Press Pollard’s “arrival was (kept) secret since we realized it’s better to be discreet regarding his arrival.”

“We have no interest in defying anyone, for sure not … the United States,” Lahav said.

He called Pollard’s arrival “very moving and very historic” and a moment that his organization “waited for, wished for and prayed for and acted for throughout all these years.”

Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv, Yuliya Talmazan from London.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.