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Israeli Supporters Lobby To Bring Jonathan Pollard Home After Release

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An American convicted of spying for Israel is scheduled to get out of federal prison tomorrow. Jonathan Pollard has been behind bars for 30 years despite persistent lobbying by Israeli officials and American supports to shorten his sentence. NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem reports Pollard's popularity in Israel increased as his prison sentence continued.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: After he's out of prison, 61-year-old Jonathan Pollard is supposed to stay in the U.S. on parole. But already, his supporters are lobbying U.S. officials to let him move to Israel as soon as possible. If he were allowed to, he could land on this cafe-lined pedestrian street in Central Jerusalem where his wife, Esther Pollard, maintains a home. The apartment is upstairs from a framing shop. Over the squeak of cleaning picture glass, Israeli shop owner Nava Vinter Katzir says she'll be glad when the convicted spy is free.

NAVA VINTER KATZIR: I'm very happy for him. He paid the bill, I think. That's what I can say.

HARRIS: Outside the hair salon next door, Michael Shir just got a trim of the little white hair he still has. Shir is also happy Pollard's prison time is almost over.

MICHAEL SHIR: I'm very happy.

HARRIS: Why?

SHIR: Because he's Jewish, because he fight for Israel, you know? He's a hero. He make - he suffer for Israel.

HARRIS: Pollard's story shocked the public when, as a naval intelligence analyst, he was arrested 30 years ago. The U.S. and Israel shared intelligence. Americans were furious Israel would try to steal secrets its biggest backer didn't choose to share. Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman has written extensively on Pollard. He says over time, right-wing, religious Israelis began to see Pollard as a victim rather than a felon.

RONEN BERGMAN: It's a great example of how Israelis are jailed in their own siege mentality and understand very, very little about the way Americans think and U.S. mentality.

HARRIS: Pollard became a celebrated cause in Israel and a thorn in the side of relations with the U.S. Israeli politicians visited Pollard in prison. Israel's parliament petitioned several U.S. administrations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he brought up Pollard's case consistently in meetings with U.S. leaders over years. Opposition politician Nachman Shai co-chairs Israel's parliamentary caucus to free Pollard. He joined the cause even though he disagrees with what Pollard did. He says about 10 years ago, he decided Pollard had been in prison just too long.

NACHMAN SHAI: The focus changed. It became a humanitarian case - someone who wasn't well. He wasn't even given a chance to attend his mother and father's funerals. You know, this is something that irritates each one of us.

HARRIS: Many Israelis hope Pollard's freedom will end one source of tension between Israel and the U.S. administration. But Israeli businessman Tomer Rosenfeld says Pollard's decades in prison over Israel's objections will always cause him to doubt America's friendship.

TOMER ROSENFELD: My feeling is that in the right moment, I'm not sure that the United States will be 100 percent with Israel. I know it's a small point, but I'm taking it to a big subject. But that's the feeling.

HARRIS: Ahead of Pollard's expected release tomorrow, Netanyahu has told members of his government to not publicly discuss the case, including supporters' new push for a short parole. A senior Israeli official says it's still that sensitive. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.