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jonathan pollard

Israelis hold placards depicting Jonathan Pollard during a protest calling for his release from a U.S. prison, outside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's hotel in Jerusalem in this file photo froim January 2, 2014. The placard (R) in Hebrew reads "To save Pollard!".Ammar Awad/Reuters

To Americans, he is one of the most dangerous spies the United States has ever caught; to Israelis he is a martyr, wrongly condemned to life in prison. Now Jonathan Pollard, in U.S. custody since 1985, may play a role in extending peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

For almost three decades, despite repeated Israeli pleas, a long line of U.S. presidents has refused to release the convicted spy – each leader claiming Mr. Pollard's crime was too heinous to be forgiven. But with the Mideast peace process at stake, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to have hatched a plan to trade Mr. Pollard's freedom for an Israeli agreement to provide the necessary impetus to keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table for perhaps another year.

However, the White House insisted on Tuesday that President Barack Obama has so far made no decision to free Mr. Pollard.

Israelis have long fixated on the plight of Mr. Pollard, a Jewish American who, as a civilian analyst in naval intelligence, supplied Israel with classified intelligence. Banners and bumper stickers calling for the freedom of the American spy abound throughout Israel and every prime minister since the late 1980s has made a pitch for the man's freedom.

In 1995, Mr. Pollard was made a citizen of Israel and, in 1998, Israelis for the first time acknowledged he had been spying on their behalf.

Not everyone will be pleased if Mr. Pollard were to be released.

"We would express our real outrage that an unrepentant spy is being released for an abstract political point that really won't make a difference," said Oliver Revell, who served as associate deputy director of the FBI when Mr. Pollard was convicted.

At the same time, a number of Israeli cabinet ministers oppose linking a Pollard release with the freeing of Palestinian prisoners or limiting settlement construction. Agricultural Minister Yair Shamir described such linkage as bribery, speaking Tuesday on Army Radio.

Mr. Pollard and his then-wife, Anne, were caught in November, 1985, attempting to take refuge in the Israeli embassy in Washington. He had been working as a research analyst in the Navy's threat-analysis division until colleagues tipped off the FBI.

While Mr. Pollard admitted to handing over some 800 documents to Israel, he insisted he did so out of idealistic loyalty, not malice, and that the information he provided was about Arab states, Pakistan and the Soviet Union, not the United States.

In an interview in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this week, retired Admiral Thomas Brooks, the former director of U.S. naval intelligence, said Mr. Pollard's actions have been "exceeded only by Edward Snowdon," the National Security Agency whistleblower.

According to the FP report, Mr. Pollard is blamed for giving away highly prized secrets that included "technical details of sophisticated U.S. spy satellites; analyses of Soviet missile systems; and information about eavesdropping equipment used by the NSA to intercept foreign governments' communications."

Mr. Pollard, who is now 59 and said to be in poor health, will come up for parole in November next year at the 30-year mark of his incarceration.