Israel, Russia hold ‘good’ meeting, but pall lingers over tourists, backpacker
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Israel, Russia hold ‘good’ meeting, but pall lingers over tourists, backpacker

Foreign Ministry vaguely reports progress after consular talks in Jerusalem, amid tensions over jailed Israeli-American and detention of Israeli visitors in Moscow airport

Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar's mother, Yaffa Issachar, center, and sister Liad Goldberg, left, at appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)
Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar's mother, Yaffa Issachar, center, and sister Liad Goldberg, left, at appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)

Israel said a consular meeting with Russian officials in Jerusalem on Thursday was held in “good spirits,” and the two sides agreed to work toward solving a spat that has seen dozens of Israelis detained at a Moscow airport in recent days.

“Both sides agreed to do everything so as not to harm the movement of tourists and business ties between the countries and decided on a number of steps to help enforce the bilateral visa-free agreement,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry did not detail what steps will be taken, but said Russia agreed to upgrade its “consular interface” vis-a-vis Israel.

Senior officials from Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Population Authority met at the Foreign Ministry offices with the Russian delegation, which included senior members of the country’s Foreign Ministry and immigration authorities. The consular meeting is a routine, yearly occurrence, the statement said.

The ministry said that the sides spoke about “Israelis being prevented entry in Moscow and the issue of illegal workers and asylum seekers entering Israel from Russia,” without detailing any solution beyond Russia confirming that Israelis entering for business talks would be handled under rules published by the Russian embassy in Israel.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Russia detained dozens of Israeli tourists and businesspeople at a Moscow airport for hours. According to Hebrew media reports, the passports of the Israelis were confiscated and no reason for their detention was given. Some passengers were interrogated in Russian with no translation offered.

The move was designed to send a “message” to Jerusalem ahead of the arrival of the delegation in Israel to discuss the Kremlin’s frustration over the annual barring of thousands of its citizens from entering the Jewish state, Hebrew media reported on Wednesday night, citing diplomatic sources.

Thursday’s statement about the consular meeting also said that Israel expressed hope that Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed in Russia on minor drug charges, would be released from prison soon, and that relatives and Israeli representatives will be allowed to visit her in prison more often. It did not detail any Russian response.

There was no immediate word from Russia on the meeting.

Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, November 2019. (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, on Thursday criticized Israeli officials for what he said was their the “haughty” conduct while working to release Issachar.

“The way in which the issue is being portrayed in Israeli media, plus the intervention of senior officials in such a haughty and boastful tone, is utterly objectionable,” he said.

“But what bothers us the most is the basis of Russia’s presumption of guilt… that there everything is supposedly not okay,” Viktorov added.

Issachar, who has been held in Russia since April, was arrested after a small quantity of marijuana, some nine grams, was found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow.

She was sentenced to over seven years in prison in the country for the minor offense.

Her appeal Thursday was rejected out of hand, meaning her years-long punishment will be upheld.

She said she was coerced into signing a confession, did not know the substance was in her luggage, and had no intention of leaving the airport, meaning there was no crime of smuggling, making any offense she committed a minor one.

After the decision was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he told Issachar’s distraught mother, Yaffa, that “despite the disappointing court decision I am not giving up.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Thursday: “Despite the disappointing decision of the Russian court, we will continue to act with all our might for the release of Naama for her return home to her family. The Foreign Ministry will continue to accompany and assist Naama and her family via all channels.”

The charge d’affaires of Israel’s embassy in Russia, Yaakov Livne, and senior officials from the US consulate attended the hearing.

Israeli officials have reportedly speculated that Issachar’s release will come from diplomatic efforts rather than in the courtroom, and will require a pardon that can only be granted by Russian President Valdimir Putin himself.

Earlier this month Netanyahu discussed Issachar’s case with Putin when the two spoke about security issues in the Middle East. Putin is slated to visit Israel in January.

The phone call was the second in three weeks between the two leaders in which Netanyahu called on Putin to pardon the young Israeli-American.

The conversation came on the same day that Katz met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Rome and raised the issue of Issachar.

Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.

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