Israeli officials believe the release of Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar from Russian prison is all but agreed upon, and Jerusalem and Moscow have only to finalize the details of her return home, according to Hebrew-language reports on Monday.
Officials have expressed optimism in recent days of a deal being worked out to secure Issachar’s release from Russian prison, where she is serving a 7.5 year sentence on drug smuggling charges. However they have also cautioned that the situation is fluid and no final agreement has been made.
According to Channel 12 news, the sides are still hashing out the mechanism by which Issachar will be allowed to return to Israel.
One possibility was that Russian President Vladimir Putin would pardon Issachar in the near future and allow her to return to Israel. Another option reportedly under consideration — in order to avoid embarrassing the Russian justice system — was for Issachar to be sent to Israel, ostensibly to continue her prison sentence there, whereupon she would be pardoned in a move quietly agreed upon by both sides.
Issachar, 27, has been held in Russia since April when some 10 grams of cannabis were found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow. 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.
She has become a cause celebre in Israel, where many see her jailing as politically motivated.
Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to discuss the case when Putin visits Israel on Thursday, the Kremlin said earlier Monday according to Russian network TASS.
Netanyahu later met with Issachar’s mother Yaffa, who returned to Israel on Sunday from a months-long vigil she has been keeping in Moscow to support her daughter.
“As the Kremlin said today, I am set to meet with President Putin on Thursday and discuss a pardon for Naama with him. I hope, like you, for good tidings,” Netanyahu said in a video posted to his YouTube channel after the meeting.
Channel 12 also reported Monday that in recent days a letter from Issachar was brought to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one that she requested would be for the eyes of Netanyahu and his wife only.
According to Channel 13 news, Russia has requested a number of concessions from Israel in exchange for Issachar’s freedom, including a resolution to a planning and building dispute at the Alexander Nevsky Compound in Jerusalem — a complex serving the serving the Russian Orthodox Church in the holy city.
Netanyahu was considering helping Moscow settle the dispute to its satisfaction, the report said, without giving details on the matter.
On Saturday Channel 12 had reported that in exchange for the pardon, Israel has been asked to provide some sort of backing for the Russian narrative surrounding World War II and speculated that Netanyahu would make a remark in his speech.
Russia has recently feuded with Poland as it has accused Warsaw of bearing some of the blame for World War II.
Putin is set to arrive in Israel on Thursday for a one-day visit for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp and will hold private meetings with Netanyahu and Rivlin.
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.
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.