WASHINGTON — Jonathan Pollard, an American who was convicted of spying for Israel in a sensational espionage case that inflamed public sentiment, could be released from federal prison within months, his lawyer and the Justice Department said Friday.
Pollard becomes eligible for parole in November, on the 30th anniversary of his arrest on charges of selling classified information to Israel. He will be presumptively eligible for release unless the U.S. Parole Commission determines that he has a record of bad behavior in prison or is likely to commit new crimes.
U.S. officials say they're unlikely to oppose his parole. But the Justice Department says it expects Pollard to serve out his entire sentence.
"The Department of Justice has always and continues to maintain that Jonathan Pollard should serve his full sentence for the serious crimes he committed, which in this case is a 30-year sentence as mandated by statute," said spokesman Marc Raimondi.
His attorney, Eliot Lauer, told The Associated Press on Friday that he hoped his client would be released, but said he had received no commitment from the Obama administration.
Pollard was arrested in November 1985 as he tried unsuccessfully to gain asylum in Israel's Washington embassy. Since then, the case has stoked passions and divided opinions, with supporters arguing that he was punished excessively given that he spied for a country that's a U.S. ally. Critics — including prosecutors and government officials — call him a traitor who damaged the nation by disclosing a trove of sensitive documents.
The U.S. has previously dangled his release, including during Israel-Palestinian talks last year. His release now could be seen as a concession to Israel, which strongly opposed the just-concluded U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. But federal officials rejected that idea.
"Mr. Pollard's status will be determined by the United States Parole Commission according to standard procedures," said National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey. "There is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard's status and foreign policy considerations."
Pollard, 60, has battled health problems in recent years and is being held in a North Carolina prison. The federal Bureau of Prisons website lists his expected release date as November 21.