Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Moscow for a previously unannounced trip to update Russian President Vladimir Putin “on regional developments and the Deal of the Century,” following his meeting at the White House.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu will depart from Washington on Wednesday and instead of returning to Israel, he will fly to Russia to meet with Putin.
The prime minister is in Washington for the release of US President Donald Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The PMO statement 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.
Speculation abounded that Netanyahu’s trip may herald the release of jailed Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar.
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 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.
On Tuesday, Moscow regional governor Andrei Vorobyev signed her pardon request, the final step necessary before the matter can be taken up by Putin.
Following Vorobyev’s signing of the petition filed by Issachar, the Kremlin said that “the necessary legal proceedings are in progress so that the president can make his decision on this issue in the near future.”
On Monday, the Moscow commission for pardons unanimously approved the release plea, which had been filed on Sunday after Putin promised Issachar’s mother, Yaffa, that she would be released soon. The Kremlin said Monday that Putin would make a decision “in the near future” on Issachar’s fate.
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, Putin 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.”
Yaffa Issachar told Israeli reporters then that she was smiling after the Jerusalem meeting because “Putin told me: ‘I’ll bring the girl home.’ Really. Let’s wait and see, there is no date for the release.”
Issachar has become a cause celebre in Israel, where her arrest and sentence are largely viewed as politically motivated. Netanyahu has promised the family to work for her release and has expressed hopes for securing a pardon.
According to Hebrew media reports, Russia has 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.