MOSCOW — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his speedy decision to pardon and release Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar, who had been held in a Russian prison for some 10 months on drug charges.
“I want to thank you in the name of the entire Israeli people for your quick decision to grant a pardon to Naama Issachar. This moves all of us and our gratitude is on behalf of all Israeli citizens, from the heart,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of their meeting in the Kremlin.
During a whirlwind visit to the snowy Russian capital on the heels of his three-day trip to Washington, Netanyahu told Putin he also wanted to discuss “regional matters” with the Russian leader.
“We conducted a number of talks with our American friends in relation to these things, and I’d like to update you on a certain development that occurred,” he said, without elaborating.
The prime minister noted that Putin was “in effect” the first foreign leader he was speaking with after the US administration’s peace deal was unveiled on Tuesday.
“You are, in effect, the first leader that I am speaking to about my visit to Washington regarding President Trump’s plan of the century,” Netanyahu told Putin. “I think a new and perhaps unique opportunity was created. I’d like to talk to you about this and hear, of course, your insights, and to see how we can integrate all forces on behalf of security and peace.”
Bilateral ties are at an all-time high, the prime minister went on, lauding the president’s “personal role” in this development.
Putin, in his remarks, expressed warm wishes for Naama Issachar and her family. He noted that she was liberated due to the efforts of her mother Yaffa, but mentioned twice that she was found carrying drugs.
“I wish her all the best for her and her family,” he said.
Putin also recalled his visit last week to Israel, during which he participated in two main events: the unveiling of a monument in honor of the heroes of the Leningrad siege during World War II, and a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center.
The Russian leader thanked Netanyahu for the “very moving” ceremonies.
Earlier on Thursday, the Russian prison service formally announced that Issachar had been released.
“Due to the presidential decree on pardoning, Naama Issachar has been freed from prison,” the prison service said in a statement.
Issachar, 27, was sentenced by Russia to 7.5 years in prison after nearly 10 grams of marijuana were found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport in April. She has denied smuggling drugs, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way to Israel from India, and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport.
Netanyahu arrived in Moscow on Thursday morning to welcome Issachar upon her release, which comes weeks before national elections in Israel. She is expected to travel back to Israel on the prime minister’s plane.
“It wasn’t an easy night, I slept for maybe an hour,” her mother said. “I’m excited. I imagined it many times, she did too. But we never imagined the prime minister would come and bring her.
“It is over, thanks to the whole Israeli nation,” she said.
Putin pardoned Issachar on Wednesday, with the Kremlin saying a presidential decree pardoning her on “humanitarian principles” was effective immediately.
Earlier, an Israeli official said Issachar’s release was the result of a Russian goodwill gesture toward the United States, stressing that Israel did not give Moscow anything in return.
“There was no deal with Russia. Naama’s release was done as a gesture by President [Vladimir] Putin to the US,” a senior official in an inter-ministerial committee dealing with the case told reporters in Netanyahu’s entourage.
According to Hebrew media reports, Russia had asked Israel to transfer a piece of Russian Orthodox Church property near the Old City of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Kremlin, as a goodwill gesture ahead of Issachar’s release.
Russia has been demanding Israel hand over rights to Alexander’s Courtyard for over a decade, but Justice Ministry officials along with two senior Likud lawmakers who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Yuli Edelstein and Ze’ev Elkin, have opposed the measure.
Last week, a Russian national whose extradition from Israel to the US was believed to be linked to Isaachar’s fate, pleaded guilty to running a website that helped people commit more than $20 million in credit card fraud. Aleksey Burkov, 29, of St. Petersburg, Russia, entered the plea to charges including fraud and money-laundering, in a federal court in Virginia.
The government dealt with Issachar’s case not only because of the state’s responsibility toward all its citizens, but also out of a desire to solve a problem “that could hurt the sensitive relations between Russia and Israel,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Securing Issachar’s release could boost Netanyahu’s popularity ahead of the March 2 elections, the third in less than a year after the prime minister failed to form a government in the previous two rounds of voting. The announcement Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office of the trip to Russia came less than an hour after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust with the Jerusalem District Court.
Putin was in Israel last Thursday for a one-day visit to attend the World Holocaust Forum, which this year marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
During his visit, he met Yaffa Issachar and said in a press statement after the meeting that “everything will be all right.” He said that it was clear to him from meeting Yaffa Issachar that her daughter comes from a “good, decent family.”
Issachar had become a cause célèbre in Israel, where her arrest and sentence were largely viewed as politically motivated.