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Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard

Convicted spy  Jonathan Pollard has been freed after three decades behind bars.

The 61-year-old was jailed for life in 1987 for passing US defence documents to Israel, but was released on Friday morning, ending one of the most contentious diplomatic issues between the US and Israel. 

Under the terms of his parole, he will not be permitted to leave the US for five years without special permission from the president, but he has offered to renounce his citizenship if granted his wish to move to Israel with the wife he married while in prison.

His request is being backed by two New York Democrats who have written to the attorney general.

Gerald Nadler and Elliot Engel said: “Despite the serious consequences that may follow such a decision, including being permanently barred from returning to the United States, he is willing to undertake this measure.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “The people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan Pollard.

“After three long and difficult decades, Jonathan has been reunited with his family. May this Sabbath bring him much joy and peace.”

Mr Netanyahu said: “The people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan A Pollard. As someone who raised Jonathan’s case for years with successive American presidents, I had long hoped this day would come.”

Pollard’s release from a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, came nearly three decades after his arrest for handing over classified US government information to Israel.

His release caps one of the most high-profile spy sagas in modern American history. Supporters said he was punished excessively for actions taken on behalf of an American ally, while critics, including government officials, derided him as a traitor who sold out his country.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the crime merited a life sentence, given the amount of damage that Mr Pollard did to the United States government,” said Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted the case in Washington. “I would have been perfectly pleased if he had spent the rest of his life in jail.”

Seymour Reich, a former president of global Jewish organisation B’nai Brith International, who visited Pollard twice in prison, said that while he believed Pollard broke the law and deserved to be punished, his sentence was overly harsh. Like other supporters, he believes Pollard was “double-crossed” into thinking he would be afforded leniency in exchange for a guilty plea.

“I hope that he settles down and lives the remaining years as best as he can,” Mr Reich said.

The parole decision was applauded in Israel, which after initially claiming that he was part of a rogue operation, acknowledged him in the 1990s as an agent and granted him citizenship. Israelis have long campaigned for his freedom, and Mr Netanyahu said last summer that he had consistently raised the issue of his release with American officials.

Pollard’s lawyers have sought permission for him to travel immediately to Israel, and two Democratic members of Congress – Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler, both of New York – have called on the Justice Department to grant the request so that Pollard can live with his family and “resume his life there”.

The White House has said that it has no intention of altering the conditions of Pollard’s parole, and even friends and supporters say they do not know exactly what’s next for him.

President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser reiterated that stance on Friday, telling reporters travelling with Mr Obama to Malaysia that “this is something that Prime Minister Netanyahu has regularly raised” in discussions with the United States.