Netanyahu ‘Optimistic’ as Russian Media Report Possible Breakthrough in Talk to Release Jailed Israeli

Call comes after top Moscow diplomat says not considering deal to release Naama Issachar, who is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for drug charges

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking on the phone, Moscow, Russia, December 2019.
Alexei Nikolsky/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday he was "optimistic" after discussing the release of an Israeli woman jailed in Russia over drug trafficking charges with President Vladimir Putin, amid Russian reports of a breakthrough in talks.

Twenty-six-year-old Naama Issachar was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for possession of 9.6 grams of hashish during a layover in the Moscow Airport. Her high-profile imprisonment was seen as a bargaining chip in efforts to prevent the extradition of Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov, who was held in Israel but turned over to the United States in November. 

Burkov plans to plead guilty to some charges against him in federal court this month, thus changing his original statement, his lawyer, Greg Stambaugh, meanwhile told the TASS news agency. The IT specialist was arrested in Israel in 2015 for extradition to the United States on charges related to widespread credit card fraud. 

In October, before Burkov's extradition, Haaretz reported that Russia had pressured Israel multipe times to release him in exchange for Issachar. 

The Prime Minister's Office said in a statement Thursday that the conversation between Netanyahu and Putin "was warm and practical, strengthening the premier's optimism" that the release of Naama Issachar is near. 

Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court, December 19, 2019.
AFP

However, in a statement released by the Kremlin after the two leaders spoke, there was no mention of the Issachar affair.

"The conversation covered a number of topical matters of Russian-Israeli cooperation in the context of the Russian President’s upcoming visit to Israel later this month to attend commemorative events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Both parties underscored the importance of preserving the historical truth about the events of World War II and the unacceptability of revising its results," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Later on Thursday, a senior Israeli official said some progress has been made in negotiations with Russia to release Issachar. Moreover, according to some Russian media reports, government sources didn’t negate that Putin would pardon Issachar. 

On Tuesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Evgeniy Ivanov told the Russian news agency TASS that Moscow is not considering a prisoners exchange deal to release Issachar.

"Issachar was convicted of criminal charges. Her claim before the European Court of Human Rights is up to her lawyers. We can't say anything about, it's her right," said Ivanov.         

The statement came a day after Netanyahu sent a letter to Issachar, informing her that he is investing "endless efforts" to bring her home.

Putin is expected to arrive in Israel next week to participate in a Holocaust memorial event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Last month, a Moscow court rejected the 25-year-old's appeal. Israel has submitted an official request to pardon her, and diplomatic sources told Haaretz that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel, which is slated for this month, is linked to the request.

The high-profile case has strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. 

Following the conversation, Issachar's mother, Yaffa, said that "The prime minister said I'm responsible to preserve Naama's mental strength as long as she's in the Russian prison, and be strong and optimistic because the prime minister is committed to releasing Naama."

Yaffa added that "Now I'm optimistic and implore the Russian president to act like a true friend of Israel and of the Jewish people and as a leader of a world power by releasing my Naama and allowing her to return to her home in Israel."