He kept his cards close to his chest until the very last moment. On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel, there are apparently only two Israelis who know exactly what was agreed with Moscow regarding the release of Naama Issachar, the Israeli jailed in Russia – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, who negotiated the details of the deal with the Russians.
Netanyahu is projecting cautious optimism and hinting at Issachar’s impending release. Political and defense sources are talking about what Israel will have to give in exchange for the expected Russian gesture. But so far, nothing is known for certain.
– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 57
Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and powerHaaretz Weekly Ep. 57
Netanyahu identified the Issachar case early on as a problem that would require his personal intervention and would affect the way the public evaluated his job performance. This is especially true because he has boasted of his close ties with world leaders, and especially of the personal and strategic relationship he has cultivated with Putin. To his credit, he has invested considerable effort in winning Issachar’s release.
Issachar’s plight has touched many Israelis, because every Israeli sees her as the daughter of their next-door neighbors. She’s a former combat soldier who apparently got tangled up in a stupid but minor crime – carrying a tiny amount of hashish with her on her way home from India. She was arrested during a stopover at the Moscow airport.
Russia’s harsh treatment of her during the trial, followed by the stiff sentence – seven and a half years in prison – smelled of deliberate abuse. Only later did it emerge that Moscow’s decision was apparently related to Israel’s arrest of a Russian hacker, who has since been extradited to the United States.
A widespread, energetic campaign for Issachar’s release has been conducted in Israel and abroad. The family of Avera Mengistu, the Israeli who has been held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for more than five years, can only envy the “Free Naama” signs hung from overpasses over numerous major Israeli highways. Issachar is also a U.S. citizen, and her relatives give frequent interviews demanding her release in both Hebrew and English.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a new cabinet meeting in Moscow, Russia, January 21, 2020. Alexei Nikolsky/AP
In public appearances and in video clips that his office has posted on social media, Netanyahu speaks about Issachar’s case in an unusually personal and emotional way – “I’m bringing Naama home,” “I hugged Naama’s mother on behalf of all of you,” “I am hoping, like all of you, for good news.” It’s been some time since the prime minister demonstrated such empathy for anyone but himself.