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Russia Pardons US-Israeli National Jailed on Drug Charges

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet Naama Issachar and her mother, Yaffa, in Moscow, Jan. 30, 2020. (Courtesy Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office/REUTERS)

Russian authorities Thursday pardoned and released an American-Israeli citizen jailed on drug charges, in a gesture timed with a visit by embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow intended to focus on a new U.S.-backed peace plan for the Middle East.

Naama Issachar, 27, a native of New Jersey who had moved to Israel, was serving 7½ years in prison for drug possession after border guards found 9 grams of hash in her bag during a changeover at a Moscow airport on her way from India to Israel.

While the case instantly became a cause celebre in Israel — widely seen as an overly harsh sentence for a minor crime — it was only recently that Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled her release was imminent.

“Everything will be OK,” Putin told Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, during a sideline meeting in Israel last week to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of a key Nazi death camp in World War II.

Yet the timing of Putin’s decision to grant a pardon was riven with political implications.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, walk with Naama Issachar and her mother, Yaffa, after Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Naama a pardon, at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Jan. 30, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, walk with Naama Issachar and her mother, Yaffa, after Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Naama a pardon, at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Jan. 30, 2020.

Netanyahu visit

Issachar’s release comes as Netanyahu is locked in a bitter yearlong struggle to maintain his hold on power while facing charges of criminal corruption. The Israeli leader was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust by prosecutors this week.

It also follows the White House’s unveiling of a new peace plan for the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict that U.S. President Donald Trump has controversially billed as “the deal of the century.”

Israel’s Netanyahu has enthusiastically endorsed the proposal. The Palestinian leadership has rejected the deal outright.

While Putin has yet to personally weigh in on the American proposal, initial reactions in Moscow underscored how the Kremlin is eager to build on its recent rise as a key power broker in Mideast regional politics.

“We confirm our readiness to further constructive work towards the collective strengthening of efforts towards a complete resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, in underscoring Russia’ delicate balance of alliances throughout the region.

Situational leverage

From the beginning, Issachar was seen as a bargaining chip in a larger political game involving Washington, Moscow and Tel Aviv.

Her initial arrest came as Russia was seeking extradition of Aleksei Burkov, an alleged Russian hacker accused of computer fraud by the U.S. government.

Israel ultimately chose to turn over Burkov to U.S. authorities last November — a decision that seemed to have soured any chance of Issachar’s early release.

Indeed, even among the celebrations of Issachar’s freedom Thursday, questions lingered: What might have prompted the exchange now? What changed? And what had Putin gained?

For it was undoubtedly a boon to Netanyahu’s latest reelection bid, with Israelis headed to the polls again March 2 after three previous votes that ended in stalemate.

Netanyahu thanked Putin for a “swift” decision to free Issachar. Further underlining the political timing of the pardon, Issachar joined Netanyahu on his government plane back to Israel.

“We’re excited to see you. Now we go back home,” Netanyahu told the former prisoner, in a video posted to his official Twitter account.

Back in Israel, media pundits suggested Netanyahu had secured Issachar’s release by granting Russia ownership of a Jerusalem site of importance to the Russian Orthodox Church, a key base of support for the Russian president.

Fueling curiosity, the Kremlin released a statement in which Putin suggested the lead Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem had played a role, passing along a letter from Issachar’s mother.

Meanwhile, in Russia, attention focused on the Kremlin leader’s other justifications for Issachar’s release.

“She hadn’t even crossed the Russian border,” said Putin, a reference to the fact the small amount of hashish had been discovered while she was in an International airport transit zone.

Despite the Kremlin insisting Issachar admit her guilt to gain pardon, the Russian leader seemed to back her lawyers view that no crime had actually been committed.

“And so, was it a violation of the law or no?” political commentator Arkady Dubnov asked in a post to Facebook.

Meanwhile, there remained little clarity over Putin’s views on President Trump’s grand bargain aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the supposed reason for the trip.

“In the end, who cares about this small stuff,” joked Matvei Ganapolsky, a commentator on the Echo of Moscow radio.

He then stated the obvious.

“Issachar needed to be freed, because she had become a drag on Russian-Israeli relations,” Ganapolsky said.