Yuri Ushakov, an aide to Putin, said the Russian leader would meet with Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, despite a crammed schedule that includes a meeting in Bethlehem with Palestinian officials, according to the Interfax news agency.
If Putin — who will spend about half a day in the Holy Land on Thursday — announces his intention to release the 27-year-old backpacker, or even consider appeals for a pardon, it would certainly eclipse some of the main thrust of the event, which organizers say is one of the biggest international gatherings in Israel’s 72-year history.
Issachar was born and raised in New Jersey and moved a decade ago to Israel, where she finished high school and served in the army. She had been returning to Israel from an extended trip to India in April and was in transit via Russia when police discovered an ounce of hashish in her checked luggage. She has been jailed there ever since.
Backpacking is very popular among Israelis after they complete their compulsory military service, and her case has captured the attention of many here. They view her as a pawn in a much larger geopolitical tussle between the United States, Russia and Israel. They hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has boasted in the past of his warm relationship with Putin, will be able to secure her release via diplomatic channels.
On Monday, Netanyahu met with Issachar’s mother and other relatives nd promised to raise her case with the Russian president. Israeli officials, quoted anonymously by local media, said that they are optimistic about the prospects of her release and that it has even been suggested that Putin could make an announcement about her fate during his visit.
If Putin does agree to “Free Na’ama” — the slogan of the campaign for her release — it would most certainly be a boon for Netanyahu, who is vying for the third time in less than a year to remain prime minister even as he faces indictments in three criminal cases.
But there is speculation, too, about what Israel might have to give to the Russians in return — possibly a valuable piece of disputed real estate in Jerusalem’s Old City, next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that Putin has previously requested on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church, or maybe a warmer embrace of Russia’s narrative on certain events during World War II.
In recent months, Putin has faced criticism, particularly from Poland, for appearing to play down the role of the Soviet Union in events leading up to the start of the war and even laying part of the blame on Poland and the West.
Such comments pushed Polish President Andrzej Duda to boycott the Jerusalem summit. Duda complained that he was not offered a chance to speak at the World Holocaust Forum and respond to Putin, who is among the keynote speakers at the event.
In an interview with Israeli state television on Monday, Duda said Putin was “consciously disseminating lies about history” and “trying to erase the responsibility of [Josef] Stalin’s Russia for starting World War II jointly with Hitler’s Germany.”
“Israel does not want to be involved in the dispute between Russia and Poland,” a senior Israeli diplomat told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
The official explained that “the criteria for choosing the speakers were representatives of the Allies, the aggressor nation, the host country of the event.”
Putin, along with Pence, Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will have five minutes to address the other world leaders on the subject of Holocaust remembrance and anti-Semitism. Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also will speak.
Putin is also expected to give a speech at the inauguration in Jerusalem of a monument dedicated to the years-long siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during the war. About 800,000 people died during the nearly 900-day blockade from Sept. 8, 1941, to Jan. 27, 1944, including many Jews.
The monument, a nearly 28-foot bronze tower designed as an eternally burning candle, came at the behest of a former Russian-speaking Israeli lawmaker, Israel’s World War II Veteran Council and the Association of Blockade Survivors in Israel. It was funded by Jewish organizations and the city councils of St. Petersburg and Jerusalem.
“Israel is home to thousands of siege survivors and descendants of those who perished,” said Gary Koren, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia. “So it is only natural that also in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, there will be a monument to commemorate the siege and what it signifies not only to the Russian people but also to the bond the two people share.”
Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.