Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar, who was freed from a Russian jail after the personal intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, partly at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrived back in Israel on Thursday evening on Netanyahu’s plane, marking the end of a saga that had lasted almost a year.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone,” Issachar told reporters upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport, before being whisked away to her home.
“I’m still in shock because of the whole situation. Thank you for everything.”
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 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.
Netanyahu had flown to Moscow on Thursday morning from the United States — both to discuss with Putin the new US proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and to welcome Issachar upon her release, which comes less than five weeks before national elections in Israel.
“It wasn’t an easy night, I slept for maybe an hour,” said Yaffa Issachar, Naama’s mother, who has spearheaded the campaign for her daughter to be freed and accompanied Naama home. “I’m excited. I imagined it many times, she did too. But we never imagined the prime minister would come and bring her home,” Yaffa said at the airport. The ordeal “is over, thanks to the entire Israeli nation,” she said.
Speaking outside their home in Rehovot later on Thursday evening, Yaffa said that she wanted “to thank everybody for the help that we have received, [especially] Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Putin, the national security advisor [Meir Ben-Shabbat]. Thank you to Naama’s group, the activists and the volunteers. The moment has arrived, Naama is at home and is excited about the little things, a bath, silverware and glass, things she didn’t have for ten months.”
“In the near future,” she continued, “she will be able to recover… She is overwhelmed with emotion. She waited for so long and didn’t even know when it would happen. She saw Netanyahu with Putin and realized it was a good sign [but she] didn’t imagine him taking us home on his plane.”
The Kan public broadcaster shared a photo of a smiling Issachar with her family and friends toasting her return.
נעמה יששכר בביתה בתמונה ראשונה עם משפחתה pic.twitter.com/Fwm6svGqwY
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) January 30, 2020
Putin pardoned Issachar on Wednesday, with the Kremlin saying a presidential decree pardoning her on “humanitarian principles” was effective immediately. He hailed Yaffa’s efforts on her daughter’s behalf.
Earlier, an Israeli official said Issachar’s release was the result of a Russian goodwill gesture toward the United States, stressing that Israel did not give Moscow anything in return.
“There was no deal with Russia. Naama’s release was done as a gesture by President Putin to the US,” the official, who sits on an inter-ministerial committee that dealt with the case, told reporters in Netanyahu’s entourage.
However, according to Hebrew media reports, Russia 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 the 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.
On Thursday, AI-Monitor reported that Russia had also raised the issue of Israel blocking the entry of some of its citizens. Last month, several dozen Israelis were detained for questioning at Moscow’s Domodedovo. At the time, the Russian Embassy issued a statement that appeared to link the detentions to the fact that “by December 1, 2019, 5,771 Russian tourists were not permitted to enter Israel.”
According to AI-Monitor, an inter-governmental committee run by Jerusalem Affairs Minister Elkin “asked the Immigration Authority to refrain from sweeping deportations and to justify every deportation with real evidence.”
Netanyahu greeted Issachar at Moscow’s airport after her release, and escorted her to his official plane.
Journalists from major Israeli news outlets provided extensive coverage, and television channels interrupted their regular broadcasts for the release of a young woman who committed a criminal offense, but whose fate — widely viewed as a disproportionate punishment — has gripped an entire nation.
Netanyahu earlier met Putin and thanked him for his speedy decision to pardon and release Issachar.
“I want to thank you in the name of the entire Israeli people for your quick decision to grant a pardon to Naama Issachar. This moves all of us and our gratitude is on behalf of all Israeli citizens, from the heart,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of their meeting in the Kremlin.
During a whirlwind visit to the snowy Russian capital on the heels of his three-day trip to Washington, Netanyahu told Putin he also wanted to discuss “regional matters” with the Russian leader, two days after the release of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
Issachar’s plight was a major issue for Israelis, garnering extensive press coverage. It motivated some to demonstrate for her release when Putin visited Israel for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last Thursday.
During that visit, Putin met Issachar’s mother and told her “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.”
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.
Securing Issachar’s release could boost Netanyahu’s popularity ahead of the March 2 elections, the third in less than a year after the prime minister failed to form a government in the previous two rounds of voting. The announcement Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office of the trip to Russia 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.
In a skit on the political capital Netanyahu could gain from Issachar’s release, actors on the Israeli satirical comedy show “Eretz Nehederet” joked Thursday that “if you’re going to get caught with drugs, do it close to the Israeli elections.”