Eighteen years into a life prison term, convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is struggling in the U.S. court system to overturn his sentence, reviving a case that has long strained relations between the United States and Israel.

A federal appeals court hears a plea Tuesday from Pollard’s lawyers – and will consider the Justice Department’s rebuttal that Pollard got what he deserved.

The two-decade-old case damaged U.S.-Israeli relations, and the Israeli government has continued to press the issue with the Bush administration. In the 1990s, Israeli prime ministers from both major political parties called for Pollard’s sentence to be commuted.

Late in the Clinton administration, Israel made a last-ditch attempt to win Pollard’s release through the U.S. president as an inducement for Israel’s signature on the accord with the Palestinian Authority. Clinton promised to review the case.

The U.S. government points to the damage Pollard inflicted on the United States, using his job as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy to give his Israeli handlers enough classified documents to fill a walk-in closet.

Admitting to a single count of conspiring to spy for Israel, Pollard thought he had a deal to receive U.S. government support for a shorter sentence because he provided details of his espionage.

What he got instead, he says, was a full-court press by the Reagan administration that helped persuade a judge to put him behind bars for the rest of his life. He’s serving his sentence at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.

Pollard, now 50, says his lawyer didn’t represent him properly, failing to file a notice of appeal when the government reneged on its agreement. Pollard also says his lawyers should be granted access to classified documents used in his sentencing.

Pollard’s latest opportunity in the courts resulted from efforts by a new set of lawyers who have been trying for the past five years to get him out of prison.

Pollard says he sold U.S. military secrets to Israel to help the U.S. ally defend itself against its Arab enemies. He was arrested in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy and then sentenced in 1987.

Most of what Pollard slipped the Israelis is not publicly known. The New Yorker magazine said Pollard gave away a 10-volume surveillance manual, described by one ex-intelligence officer as “the Bible,” which contained detailed information on how U.S. intelligence collects signals anywhere in the world. The magazine quoted Pollard as rejecting the allegation.

What is known publicly is that Pollard gave the Israelis satellite photos of Libyan anti-aircraft bases and information about Soviet weaponry, data Pollard says was vital to Israel’s defense.

The three-judge panel hearing the case consists of David Sentelle, a Reagan appointee; Karen Henderson, an appointee of President Bush’s father; and Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee.

Pollard’s efforts to take his case further in the courts were turned down by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan.

Lawyers for Pollard asked the appeals court to reconsider Hogan’s ruling, a request that is routinely denied. The appeals court instead agreed to take up the matter.

Pollard’s lawyers say his original attorney, prominent Washington white-collar defense attorney Richard Hibey, failed to protect Pollard’s constitutional rights; specifically, the right to have the government live up to the plea agreement with Pollard and the right not to be sentenced on the basis of false information.

© 2005 The Associated Press