JERUSALEM — When President Obama lands here on Wednesday, he may encounter some Israelis staging a hunger strike in support of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American serving a life term in a North Carolina prison for spying for Israel.
But the call for Mr. Pollard’s release will not be restricted to the strident, right-wing protests that have previously greeted American officials.
Instead, it will come from Israel’s dovish president, Shimon Peres, and some of the country’s most respected public figures: Nobel Prize-winning scientists, retired generals, celebrated authors and intellectuals who have signed, along with more than 175,000 other citizens, an online petition appealing for clemency for Mr. Pollard.
After years of being viewed as a somewhat marginal and divisive issue here, the campaign to free Mr. Pollard has become a mainstream crusade. Prominent Israelis are shedding the shame long felt over the affair, one of the most damaging, painful episodes in the annals of the American-Israeli relationship, and recasting it as a humanitarian issue ready to be resolved.
The effort has gathered momentum, and many Israelis consider Mr. Obama’s visit to be the perfect opportunity for a gesture of good will.
“I will sum it up in three words: enough is enough,” said Amnon Rubinstein, a law professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a former minister of education. “It is not humane to keep him in jail any longer.”
A main factor behind the shift, Israelis supporting the campaign say, is the time that Mr. Pollard, 58, who is said to be ailing, has already served — 28 years. Advocates for his release say that is unprecedented among Americans convicted of spying for an ally.
Another factor is the growing number of former officials in the United States who have called for clemency in recent years, including two former secretaries of state, George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, and a former director of the C.I.A., R. James Woolsey.
Mr. Woolsey, who has firsthand knowledge of the case and strongly opposed clemency for Mr. Pollard during his tenure at the C.I.A., told Israel’s Army Radio last week that three other spies for friendly countries who were tried and convicted in the United States were each sentenced to less than five years in prison.
Such voices have given the advocates for Mr. Pollard a new level of respectability and have allowed more Israelis to speak out.
Amos Yadlin, the former director of Israeli military intelligence who now runs the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recently appeared on Israeli television to appeal for Mr. Pollard’s release.
“Clemency for Pollard, given his health situation, is a humanitarian issue that we can put behind us as our two countries face extraordinary challenges in 2013,” Mr. Yadlin said.
Yair Lapid, the new centrist force in Israeli politics, also signed the petition, as did Gilad Shalit, a former soldier who was held captive by Hamas militants for five years. Veteran campaigners have also changed their tone. After Israel refused to recognize Mr. Pollard as a “prisoner of Zion” in 2005, his wife, Esther, called the government’s attitude “petty and meanspirited.”
Now, Mrs. Pollard is taking a more stately approach. Lawrence J. Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and is now pushing for clemency for Mr. Pollard, has accompanied Mrs. Pollard to meetings with Israeli leaders in recent years.
Last week on Israeli television, Mrs. Pollard said that she and her husband felt “profound remorse and sorrow for what has happened” and begged Mr. Obama for mercy.
Mr. Pollard, a former United States Navy intelligence analyst, began spying for Israel after he approached an Israeli officer in 1984. When he was discovered 18 months later, he sought refuge in the Israeli Embassy in Washington but was refused entry. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
At first, Israel disowned Mr. Pollard, saying that he was an actor in a rogue operation. But he was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his first term in office in the late 1990s, officially recognized Mr. Pollard as an Israeli agent.
Many details of the case remain classified. But recently declassified documents from a 1987 C.I.A. damage assessment stated that Mr. Pollard’s instructions were primarily to provide Israel with American intelligence on Israel’s Arab adversaries and the military support they received from the Soviet Union, including information on Arab chemical and biological weapons.
Mr. Pollard’s supporters note that he was not asked to spy on the United States per se.
Mr. Pollard delivered suitcases full of copies of classified documents to the Israelis every two weeks. The copious disclosures posed multiple risks to American intelligence sources and methods, and to American foreign policy interests, the C.I.A. assessment stated.
In the past, Mr. Netanyahu pushed for Mr. Pollard’s release to balance concessions he was being pressed to make in Middle East peace negotiations.
But Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2006 to 2009, said that a “strong nucleus of people” within the United States defense establishment had adamantly opposed Mr. Pollard’s release, “exerting a lot of influence over others.”
“None of us know all the details,” Mr. Meridor said. “But assuming he did something really bad, the very worst that you could anticipate in this realm, 28 years is more than enough.”
March 17, 2013
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Copyright The New York Times Company