Putin Wants Historic Gestures From Netanyahu, Not Military Cooperation, to Release Jailed Israeli

Israeli PM is keeping his cards close to his chest, but sources say quid pro quo will not be military and initial leaked information shows just how far he's willing to go

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israelis hold signs calling for the release of Israeli Naama Issachar during a demonstration In Tel Aviv, Israel, October 19, 2019.
Israelis hold signs calling for the release of Israeli Naama Issachar during a demonstration In Tel Aviv, Israel, October 19, 2019. Credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

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.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and power

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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. Credit: 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.

Putin is apparently willing to cooperate. He already made one humanitarian gesture to Netanyahu, when he arranged for the return of missing soldier Zachary Baumel’s remains from Damascus last spring, 37 years after he fell in battle during the 1982 Lebanon war. With miraculous timing, that moving gesture took place during a meeting with Netanyahu less than a week before the Israeli election in April – the first of three in the space of less than a year.

Assuming that Issachar is released in the near future, what will Israel have to pay this time? Defense sources say the quid pro quo isn’t military.

Both countries are fairly satisfied with the way their protocol to avoid conflict in Syrian airspace has worked since the two leaders hastily drafted it in September 2015, immediately after Putin sent two squadrons of fighter jets to help the Assad regime. And Israel has apparently restrained itself over Russia’s gross violation of the promise it made in September 2018 to keep Hezbollah forces and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at least 70 kilometers from Syria’s border with Israel in the Golan Heights.

Judging by initial information leaked to the media, the Israeli payment will include at least two things: the release of Israeli-held property in Jerusalem that belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, including the Russian Compound’s Alexander Courtyard, and support, possibly tacit, for whatever Putin will say at Thursday’s ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Moscow raised the first demand more than a decade ago, but Israel has hitherto withheld its consent, saving it as a future bargaining chip. Two senior members of Netanyahu’s Likud party who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, have in the past opposed transferring the courtyard to the Russians.

The cabinet has the right to change its mind. But if this does happen, it will show how far Netanyahu is willing to go to free Issachar at a time when elections are once again in the offing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, on September 12, 2019.Credit: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/POOL/AFP

The second issue is even more sensitive. For the past several years, Russia, Poland, Israel and Germany have been waging historical battles over the events of World War II and the memory of the Holocaust.

Putin recently escalated his public attacks on the Poles in an effort to inculcate a historical narrative in which the Soviet Union played no role in the catastrophe that befell Poland, which the Nazis and the Soviets divvied up among themselves in September 1939. This issue is so laden that Polish President Andrzej Duda canceled his planned visit to Israel after discovering that he wouldn’t be allowed to speak during the ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.

This is a minefield, but Israel appears to be leaping right into the middle of it with youthful exuberance. Netanyahu already slipped up once on this issue, over a year ago, when, due to his close relationship with Warsaw, he provided indirect support for Poland’s efforts to rewrite history and obscure the aid many Poles gave to the Nazis’ machinery of annihilation.

Now, this could happen again – from the opposite direction – when Putin addresses the ceremony. Instead of leaving the past to historians, leaders have waded deep into the battle over the narrative.

None of this has been discussed publicly. The negotiations are being conducted exclusively by Netanyahu and Ben-Shabbat. Yad Vashem’s management has kept mum, the Foreign Ministry has disappeared and Israeli politicians are sticking their noses into nothing but their handkerchiefs, saying nothing about the negotiations for fear of spoiling the celebration of Naama’s return.

Judging by the media coverage, her impending return has almost completely overshadowed the importance of the ceremony, which will take place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day with more than 40 world leaders in attendance. They are coming at the invitation of President Reuven Rivlin, who organized and is running the event.

Netanyahu’s toadies are busy telling us that the arrival of these world leaders is a testament to his exalted international status. Remembering the Holocaust is evidently mere window dressing for Netanyahu’s great achievement of rescuing us from the threat of diplomatic isolation.

Even by recent Israeli standards, this is an exceptional display of vulgarity. Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that Jerusalem’s mayor could invite journalists covering the conference to an after-party, even if the deejay was canceled after the media learned about it.

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