Analysis |

Netanyahu Brags About Relations With Putin, but Israeli's Trial in Russia Attests to Growing Tension

25-year-old woman is the victim of a diplomatic arm-wrestling match that comes as Moscow is replacing friendly gestures to Israel with a carrot-and-stick attitude

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu enter the hall during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Sept. 12, 2019.
Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu enter the hall during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Sept. 12, 2019.Credit: Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Even if the final verdict in Naama Issachar’s case has not yet been issued and there are still hopes for a deal to win her release, it’s clear that she’s the victim of a new sort of arm-wrestling match in the Middle East.

It’s a more complicated struggle than it would appear. On the one hand, Issachar – sentenced to seven and a half years in Russian prison after hashish was found in her bag as she was flying through Moscow, and who denies responsibility – is being punished unreasonably harshly in what everyone admits is a political rather than a criminal matter.

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More and more Israeli businesspeople are being delayed at Moscow border checks for what all admit is a clear message from the Kremlin it doesn't intend to tolerate having thousands of Russian citizens delayed at Israel’s border. But behind the scenes, on a much less publicized front, tensions are rising over Israel’s operations against the Iranian presence in Syria at a time when Russia is trying to stabilize Bashar Assad’s rule.

All these actions are linked and reflect the creation of a new balance of power between Russia on one side, and Israel and its U.S. ally on the other.

A billboard bearing portraits of Vladimir Putin and Naama Issachar in Tel Aviv, December 12, 2019. Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

In more normal times, the Issachar incident could have ended totally differently, and Russia’s complaints about its citizens not being allowed in would have been handled quietly – as it had been for year. But these are not ordinary times, particularly in Syria, where Russia is trying to establish its regional and international standing – thus Moscow's desire to make gestures of friendship to Israel has been replaced by a game of carrot and stick.

On the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing to supply Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with pictures for the never-ending election campaigns. He will even arrive next month, at President Reuven Rivlin’s invitation, with dozens of leaders for a world Holocaust forum at Yad Vashem – more for his own purposes rather than Israel's And yet, there’s a symbolic significance to his arrival. The stipends for thousands of Soviet veterans who served in the Red Army and live in Israel have been approved just recently.

But on the other hand, there are increasingly serious signals being conveyed on other levels. Naama Issachar is one message; the passengers to Moscow, including an Israeli journalist (not coincidentally) provide another one.

Given all of this, it’s hard to understand Netanyahu’s strategy of playing the braggart. Billboards with Putin; ceaseless declarations about their warm ties; even when he was forced to wait for hours at the Sochi meeting; and the grand finale: The recent promise to his supporters that he "will bring Naama home" a day before her appeal was rejected.

Naama Issachar sits inside a cage during appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 19, 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.

This insistence on creating a false image, according to which Netanyahu’s supposedly good relationship with Putin will save the tangled situation, is irresponsible to say the least, and counterproductive at worst. As usual, both Putin and Netanyahu are ignoring the fact that the victims in all this are the citizens being run over in this struggle between the two countries.

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