Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel on Thursday for a major Holocaust commemoration as speculation swirled that his trip could include an announcement on the fate of jailed Israeli-American Naama Issachar.
Putin was greeted on the tarmac by Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who earlier expressed optimism over the fate of the backpacker.
“A visit by a Russian president to Israel is always important,” Katz said. “I am optimistic [about the return of Issachar]. I met twice with the Russian foreign minister and spoke about the matter. The foreign ministries are discussing it. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will raise the matter with President Putin, giving us reason to be significantly optimistic that soon Naama will be here, home, with us.”
Also arriving Thursday morning was US Vice President Mike Pence, who is joining 40-plus other world leaders and senior dignitaries for the World Holocaust Forum event, seen as the largest diplomatic gathering in Israel’s history.
Putin and Pence are in Israel for a one-day visit for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
The Russian leader is slated to hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and unveil a memorial to those who died during the World War II siege of Leningrad, his hometown.
A senior Kremlin official told the Russian business daily Vedomosti on Wednesday that Putin’s meeting with Netanyahu will also include Issachar’s mother.
“I am excited and optimistic and hoping to hear from the president that my daughter is finally coming back,” Yaffa Issachar said as she left her home to travel to Jerusalem for the meeting.
Naama Issachar was sentenced by Russia to 7.5 years in prison after 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.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov told Vedomosti that Putin will meet Issachar’s mother Yaffa during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Katz told Army Radio on Thursday that inviting Yaffa to a meeting with the Russian leader “raises the threshold of optimism.”
After meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, Putin, Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin will dedicate a monument in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park in memory of the soldiers and residents of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, before attending the central ceremony at Yad Vashem to mark the liberation of Auschwitz.
Hebrew media reports have swirled that a deal for Issachar’s release is nearing completion and may be announced during Putin’s visit.
According to Hebrew media reports, in exchange 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, Hebrew media reported, but Justice Ministry officials along with two senior Likud lawmakers and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Yuli Edelstein and Ze’ev Elkin, have opposed the measure.
On Wednesday, Maariv published a document allegedly showing that Israel began the process of transferring the property over to Moscow three weeks ago.
Reports have also indicated that Russia may seek strong Israeli backing for its position in a spat with Poland over responsibility for World War II.
On Wednesday, during a state dinner arranged for the world leaders, President Reuven Rivlin appeared to counsel against politics and history mixing.
“Historical research should be left to historians,” Rivlin said. “The role of political leaders is to shape the future.
Earlier this month, Yaffa Issachar appealed to Rivlin in an open letter on Facebook, asking him not to host Putin and threatening to physically block the Russian leader’s path to stop him from entering the President’s Residence. The family has since said it was not planning any provocative activities during Putin’s visit to the country — apparently due to their understanding that Naama’s release may be at hand.
On Friday, Netanyahu said that there was a “real willingness” on Putin’s part to help resolve the situation.
Issachar has become a cause celebre in Israel, where many see her jailing as politically motivated. Talk of a possible pardon has overshadowed coverage of the Holocaust Forum, which comes days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Activists who have pushed for Issachar’s release have been asked in recent days to suspend their vocal campaign for fear of upending the delicate talks with Russia.
Netanyahu is also slated to hold a bilateral meeting with Pence and US Ambassador David Friedman Thursday evening.
The meeting comes amid reports that the White House is considering rolling out its peace plan in coming weeks without waiting for the results of Israel’s upcoming election. Also in the country is senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who has been the administration’s point person on the peace proposal.
Ahead of the meeting, the prime minister is slated to accompany Pence to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
On Thursday morning, Rivlin was slated to meet with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who arrived ahead of Pence.