Jonathan Pollard, who spent 30 years in a US prison for spying for Israel, has arrived in Israel with his wife in the culmination of a decades-long affair that had long strained relations between the two close allies.
Pollard was welcomed at Israel’s international airport early on Wednesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who presented the Texas-born Jewish American – who obtained Israeli citizenship in 1995 while in jail – and his wife Esther with Israeli ID cards.
“Welcome back. How good you’ve come home,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement issued by his office. He said they could start new lives in Israel “in freedom and happiness”.
“We are ecstatic to be home at last,” said the 66-year-old Pollard.
“No one could be prouder of this country or this leader than we are and we hope to become productive citizens as soon and as quickly as possible and to get on with our lives here,” Pollard added.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tweeted: “Welcome home to Jonathan and Esther Pollard!”
A video released by Netanyahu’s office showed Pollard walking down the stairs of the plane and kissing the ground.
Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy, sold military secrets to Israel while working at the Pentagon in the 1980s. He was arrested in 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to seek asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, and pleaded guilty. The espionage affair embarrassed Israel and tarnished its relations with the US for years.
Sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage, Pollard was freed in 2015 on parole, which ended in November.
That cleared the way for him to leave the US.
Pollard arrived on a plane owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a strong supporter of Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.
Israel Hayom newspaper, which first reported the couple’s arrival, said they flew in on a private plane due to Esther Pollard’s medical condition.
Pollard’s release was the latest in a long line of diplomatic gifts given to Netanyahu by Trump. His arrival in Israel gives the embattled Netanyahu a welcome boost as he fights for reelection in parliamentary elections on March 23.
Netanyahu has been one of Trump’s closest allies on the international stage. Over the past four years, Trump has recognised contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US Embassy to the holy city.
In other departures from traditional US positions, he also has recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, said Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are not illegal, and brokered a series of normalisation agreements between Israel and Arab nations.