The pit stop in Russia immediately drew widespread speculation that he would return home with Na’ama Issachar, 27, who was sentenced by a Russian court last October to 7½ years in prison for drug smuggling.
Netanyahu is embroiled in a bitter fight for his political survival, with an unprecedented third general election in less than a year to be held March 2. If he returns to Israel with Issachar in tow, it would certainly be a boost to his election campaign.
Issachar was born and raised in Fair Lawn, N.J., and moved to Israel a decade ago, finishing high school and serving in the Israeli army. Her plight has filled headlines in Israel. Many young Israelis travel after they complete their mandatory military service, and Issachar had been returning to Israel from India via Moscow last spring when Russian police discovered less than a third of an ounce of hashish in her checked luggage.
Since her case came to light last summer, Netanyahu, who often boasts about his warm ties with Putin, has faced mounting pressure to make a special plea to the Russian leader for her release. When the two leaders met last week during events surrounding the World Holocaust Forum, Netanyahu invited Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, to make her case to the Russian leader.
In televised statements to the media after the meeting, Putin said that “the prime minister’s position is known to me” and that it was “clear Na’ama comes from a very good family.”
“All of this will be taken into account when a decision is made,” Putin said, promising “everything will be all right.”
Over the weekend, Issachar’s lawyers submitted a formal request for a pardon to Russian authorities, even though initially Issachar had opted against submitting such a request, thinking her mother’s and Israeli authorities’ pleas were sufficient.
As part of her request, Issachar wrote that while she was guilty of transporting hashish, she “did not want to smuggle [it] on purpose,” said Moscow Region Human Rights Commissioner Yekaterina Semyonova, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
Issachar’s mother arrived in Moscow on Tuesday, but authorities denied her request to visit her daughter, apparently in a bid to delay the pardon until Netanyahu’s detour through Russia on Thursday.
Issachar’s case was made public in August after her family revealed that they had been contacted by friends of Aleksei Burkov, a Russian IT specialist jailed in Israel since 2015 but wanted by the United States. Burkov’s associates asked Issachar’s family to make her release part of a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Russia, but Israel had already approved his extradition to the United States, where he had been convicted of committing more than $20 million in computer fraud.