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Israel to push for backpacker’s release, discuss travel limits with Russia

Delegation from the Kremlin set to arrive in Israel on Thursday, as jailed Israeli-American Naama Issachar faces appeal, and a day after 46 Israelis held up in Moscow for hours

Illustrative: Supporters call for the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman imprisoned in Russia for drug offenses, at a rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on October 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: Supporters call for the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman imprisoned in Russia for drug offenses, at a rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on October 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israeli officials will push for the release of an Israeli-American backpacker who is jailed in Russia and discuss an apparent tightening of restrictions on Israeli travel to the country on Thursday, when an official delegation from Russia arrives for diplomatic talks.

The meeting will be held a day after Russia detained dozens of Israeli tourists and businesspeople at a Moscow airport for hours on Wednesday. It will also come as a Russian court hears the appeal on the conviction of Naama Issachar, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on drug offenses after a small amount of marijuana was found in her luggage at a Moscow airport in April.

The Foreign Ministry confirmed the Thursday arrival of the Russian delegation for an annual meeting and said that the sides would be discussing “consular matters.”

The ministry said it would seek “clarifications and explanations” regarding the holding of 46 Israelis, some for as long as six hours, at Domodedovo airport in the Russian capital. 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.

This photo from May 17, 2015, shows the Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, file)

The move was designed to send a “message” to Jerusalem ahead of the arrival of a 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.

The Wednesday incident came after a group of eight businessmen were held in a Russian airport overnight and then deported back to Israel last week, according to Channel 12.

Responding to a query from reporters regarding Wednesday’s detentions, Russia’s Foreign Ministry pointed to the high number of its own citizens who have been denied entry into Israel at Ben Gurion Airport.

As of December 1, 5,771 Russian citizens were barred entry into Israel this year alone, according to Moscow. That figure was corroborated by Israel’s Population Immigration and Border Authority statistics as well. The 2019 figure was 1,416 higher than last year’s.

PIBA stats show that 30 Israelis have been detained and barred entry into Moscow.

PIBA said that denial of entry is carried out on an individual basis and pointed out that tens of thousands of Russian citizens are let in to the country without any issue. A source familiar with the matter told the Haaretz daily that among those Russian citizens denied entry were those seeking asylum and work migrants. The source added that a large number or Russian citizens have managed to get into the country and stayed illegally.

The Foreign Ministry in its statement added that it planned on raising the case of jailed backpacker Issachar during its Thursday meetings with the Russian delegation.

Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling, in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Issachar, arrested in April, was sentenced in October to seven and a half years in prison for drug smuggling after authorities in April found nine grams of marijuana in her luggage before she boarded a connecting flight on her way from India to Israel. She had not planned to enter Russia during the stopover.

A Russian court is slated to hold a hearing on Thursday to discuss Issachar’s appeal against her conviction.

Netanyahu softens promise to bring Issachar home

Speaking at a campaign event of this month’s Likud primary on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I am not a magician, but one thing I assure you. I will bring Naama Issachar home.”

The prime minister’s assurance prompted members of her family to express optimism on Wednesday that she would shortly be released.

An unnamed senior official told Channel 12 Wednesday that Netanyahu’s comments were a mistake.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on February 27, 2019. (Maxim Shemetov/Pool/AFP)

“From our acquaintance with the Russians, they probably did not like this statement. This is not how you work with the Russians, who deal with such matters behind closed doors and not with the media. The integration of this sensitive issue into an internal political campaign does not help,” the official said, referring to an upcoming Likud leadership vote.

Shortly after the report, Netanyahu’s spokeswoman issued a statement Wednesday clarifying that the prime minister did not mean that Issachar’s release would happen overnight, but rather that “it would take time” and that the premier was committed to bringing her home.

Earlier this month Netanyahu discussed Issachar’s case with Russian President Vladimir 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 Foreign Minister Israel Katz met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Rome and raised the issue of Issachar.

Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.

Russia had tried exchanging Issachar for Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov, but its advances were turned down by Israeli officials who said they feared setting a precedent. Israel extradited Burkov to the United States, where he is wanted on embezzlement charges for a credit card scheme that allegedly stole millions of dollars from American consumers.

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