It's a story of betrayal or loyalty, seen as a display of a "love for Zion" or personal greed; it has gripped Israel for decades, and now, it is finally reaching its conclusion.

Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. While working for US naval intelligence, he had stolen suitcases full of top secret documents and passed them on to Israel.

Last Friday, having spent 30 years in prison, he reached the end of that sentence and was released on parole at the age of 62. During that period, these two countries have been involved in an episodic series of pawn-brokering and manoeuvring, political bargaining and blame-gaming - a constant volley that is revealing of a darker, more cynical tone to the otherwise BFF-style special relationship.

US frees Israel spy after 30 years

Pollard's popularity in Israel speaks volumes of the way the country sees itself and its relationship with the US - which can sometimes come over as a bit, shall we say: disdainful.

Old anti-Semitism rhetoric

Pollard was, as he insists, acting out of love for Israel and concern for its security - and, despite the wads of cash and fat diamonds he was paid for his spying, despite the allegations that he tried to sell sensitive US intel secrets to other countries, too, Pollard's self-proclaimed motivations are what bind Israelis to him.

It's this supposed loyalty to the country that also blinds Israelis - even at the highest levels - to the absolute folly of running a spy at the most secret heart of its most devoted ally. It is assumed that, at the time, the spying was known at the highest levels in Israel - by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin - which makes the act all the more astounding.

Among supporters of Pollard, there has been a tendency to insist that the spying was not that big a deal - and it was certainly worth it - and, also, that his harsh sentence had more to do with anti-Semitism than with the severity of his deeds.

The operational assumption behind seeing Pollard as a necessary hero seems to be that diaspora Jews put concern for Israel above concern for their home countries - a damaging view that, in the Pollard incident, laid American Jewry wide open to suspicions of dual loyalty.

 

And here we come to exhibit two in the Pollard US-Israel files: never mind the US funding and US protection in international bodies; never mind that the US has the largest and most integrated Jewish population in the world, or the importance of its unbreakable alliance with the Jewish state - many Israelis will still insist that Pollard's imprisonment comes down to anti-Semitism, rather than, say, breaking the law.

Of course, that's a motif that shows up beyond the Pollard incident too: Witness how Israeli ministers and sections of the media claimed the US-brokered Iran nuclear deal was fuelled by anti-Semitism, rather than by the US having a different take on strategy and geopolitics.

A necessary hero?

And on the subject of American Jewry, that's another component of the case that ultranationalistic Israelis tend to view differently. As Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, a political and military analyst, pointed out earlier this year, it didn't seem to matter to Israel - at the official or street level - that Pollard had compromised the positions of so many American Jews who were, after he was caught, "accused of disloyalty".

The operational assumption behind seeing Pollard as a necessary hero seems to be that diaspora Jews put concern for Israel above concern for their home countries - a damaging view that, in the Pollard incident, laid American Jewry wide open to suspicions of dual loyalty.

According to Bergman, this meant that for years after, American Jews found it difficult to get security clearance for sensitive positions within the US government.


Also read: Who is Jonathan Pollard?


Both countries have treated the issue with cynicism within the political arena, using it as a bargaining chip when it was deemed convenient.

In 1998, then-US President Bill Clinton was considering the release of Pollard as part of a peace agreement he was brokering with Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then serving his first term as Israeli prime minister.

The deal fell apart because then-CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign over it. In 2010, Netanyahu apparently suggested that Pollard be released as a "reward" for Israel halting the construction of new settlements, or, in other words, as a fillip for not flouting international law.

During Barack Obama's first presidential visit to Israel in 2013, the government rehashed the long-standing campaign for clemency for Pollard. Meanwhile, it was reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility of Pollard's release in exchange for a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion during peace negotiations in 2014 - although he has denied this.

During the summer, when it was revealed that the US administration would not protest Pollard's imminent parole review, if approved, it was viewed as a kind of sweetener to Israel over the Iran nuclear deal.

Now Pollard has been released, but the bargaining between the two countries over him may well continue: The conditions of his parole mean he has to stay in the US for five years.

Obama has insisted that he will not interfere with the legal processes to change the parole terms and allow Pollard to go to Israel. However, that may be unlikely to prevent right-wing Israeli lawmakers and campaigners from trying to persuade him otherwise.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera