Israel gives Pollard, its former spy in U.S., warm but low-key homecoming

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A former U.S. Navy analyst who served 30 years in prison for spying on behalf of Israel emigrated there on Wednesday to a warm but low-key welcome by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jonathan Pollard’s case put a rare strain on U.S.-Israel ties for decades. His predawn arrival, aboard a private jet, was not announced in advance - suggesting a bid to limit publicity.

Netanyahu met Pollard, 66, and his wife Esther as they disembarked, video disseminated by the prime minister’s office showed. After they kissed the tarmac, the Israeli leader said a Hebrew prayer of thanksgiving for the liberation of prisoners.

“Welcome home,” he said, presenting Pollard with an Israeli residency card. “Now you are a citizen of the State of Israel.”

Arrested in 1985, Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to passing Israel military secrets. Israel apologised to its ally for recruiting him. Successive U.S. administrations rejected Israeli requests to show him clemency.

Pollard was freed in 2015 on parole. A U.S. Justice Department decision last month to let the parole terms’ five-year travel ban go unrenewed was seen by some as a parting gift to Israel by President Donald Trump.

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

Aviation data showed the Pollards flew in aboard a plane owned by U.S. billionaire couple and Israel-backers Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. The Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom said Esther Pollard required a private plane due to health problems.

In an Israel Hayom column, Miriam Adelson called for Pollard to be welcomed “quietly, with a great sigh of relief, with tears of regret,” and added: “He deserves to live in a country that treats its ally with respect and wisdom.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Stephen Coates, Kim Coghill and Giles Elgood