Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone Monday, with the two discussing developments in Syria and other matters of mutual interest, the Kremlin said in a statement.
It was not known whether the two also spoke about the Israeli woman imprisoned in Russia for drug offenses. Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced last week to seven-and-a-half-years in prison for alleged drug smuggling. She has been detained by Russia for the last six months after 9.6 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow. Issachar was flying from India to Israel, and at no point was to exit the airport in Russia.
Israeli officials reportedly believe Moscow is using Issachar as leverage to ensure the return of Alexey Burkov, an IT specialist set to be extradited by Israel to the US, where he is wanted on embezzlement charges. Reports in the Hebrew media have indicated Israeli officials think Burkov may be tied to Russian intelligence.
Netanyahu last week sent a formal request to Putin asking that Issachar be pardoned. Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.
Earlier this month Netanyahu called Putin to wish him a happy birthday as he celebrated turning 67. On Saturday the Russian leader was said to return the favor, when the Israeli premier turned 70.
Israel has highly sensitive relations with Russia, which is deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. Russia has played a central role, alongside Iran, in preventing the fall of the Assad regime in the civil war, while Israel is seeking to prevent Iran from deepening its military presence across the northern border.
Netanyahu has cultivated close ties to Putin, flying frequently to meet with him. This July, in a move targeting Israeli-Russian voters ahead of the repeat elections in September, Netanyahu’s Likud party hung a massive picture of the prime minister with Putin on its headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Prior to the election, Netanyahu flew to Russia to meet with Putin in Sochi. Meeting with Putin, the prime minister hailed bilateral relations, saying they have never been better.
Russia is also closely involved in the happenings on the Syrian-Turkish border, where Ankara has led a deadly offensive against Kurdish forces following the withdrawal of American troops.
The Kurds — with Russia’s mediation — have invited the Syrian government to send troops into northeastern Syria as protection from Turkish forces. That has complicated Turkey’s plan to create a “safe zone” along the border, where it can resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey. Most of those refugees fled Syria’s government.
Many Israeli government officials are deeply worried by Russia’s new status as the region’s chief arbiter, taking the position traditionally held by Washington.