MOSCOW — Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar reunited with her mother on Thursday at Moscow’s airport after her release from Russian prison, and boarded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official plane on her way back to Israel as a free woman.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, greeted Naama in front of the cameras, along with Yaffa Issachar, after pushing for months for her release, which comes weeks before national elections in Israel.
Naama 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 that 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.
Issachar, who was held in a Russian prison for some 10 months, was seen hugging her mother and greeting the Netanyahus inside the terminal.
The four then crossed the tarmac and boarded the plane without stopping to make a formal statement or answer questions from the many reporters in attendance.
“Let’s go home, let’s go home,” the prime minister said.
It was a unique event, where journalists from all major Israeli news outlets provided extensive coverage and television channels interrupted their regular broadcasts for the release of a young woman who committed a criminal offense, but whose fate — widely viewed as a disproportionate punishment — has gripped an entire nation.
Netanyahu earlier met Russian President Vladimir Putin and thanked him for his speedy decision to pardon and release Issachar.
“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, days after the release of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
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.
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.
“It wasn’t an easy night, I slept for maybe an hour,” her mother said before the release. “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 added after the prisons service announcement.
Naama Issachar grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, where her Israeli parents had settled. She and her sister Liad Goldberg both hold American and Israeli citizenship.
At the age of 16, Issachar convinced her parents to move back to Israel so she could finish high school there and enlist in the army, Goldberg — who stayed behind in the US — said in November.
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.
Agencies contributed to this report.