Netanyahu Heads Home With Israeli Pardoned by Putin, Ending Months-long Saga

Naama Issachar had been held since April after being sentenced for over seven years in a highly politicized case, but was released ahead of Israeli PM's snap visit

From Left: Naama Issachar, her mother Yaffa, Sara and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the airport in Moscow, Russia, January 30, 2020.

MOSCOW – Russia freed Thursday an Israeli-American woman jailed over drug charges in a high-profile case, and she left the country on board Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plane as he ended a brief visit to Moscow. 

Twenty-six-year-old Naama Issachar was sentenced for seven and a half years in prison last year, but was granted pardon on Wednesday by Russian President Vladmir Putin, after serving ten months.

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Netanyahu arrived in Moscow Thursday morning, and met with Issachar at the Moscow airport before boarding the prime minister's plane en route to Israel.  

Speaking before their meeting at the Kremlin, Netanyahu thanked the Russian leader for pardoning Issachar and said "everyone is excited" by it.

Netanyahu also said the visit, just over a month before Israel's March 2 election, "signals further rapprochement in our relations," adding that Putin is the first foreign leader he meets since U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his Middle East peace proposal on Tuesday. "I would like to get insight from you, and see how we can join forces for peace."

Putin said Russia and Israel have made progress "on several bilateral issues," without specifying further, adding that he granted Issachar pardon "mostly thanks to her mother, but we must remember she did commit a felony."

Issachar's mother, Yaffa, said while waiting for Israeli Foreign Ministry officials to pick her up to reunite with her daughter that she is "waiting to finally see Naama, put my arms around her. Thank God, and thank you everybody for all you've done."

Vladimir Putin greets Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara prior to their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 30, 2020.
Maxim Shemetov/Pool Photo via AP

Issachar was arrested in April for drug smuggling after a small amount of hashish was found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport.

According to a senior Israeli official involved in the matter, Israel did not sign a deal with Russia to release Issachar, but rather it was "as a gesture by President Vladimir Putin to Netanyahu."

The official added that the state was willing to resolve a case that could hurt the sensitive relationship between Israel and Russia. The official said that Israel's gestures towards Russia were to tighten relations between the countries, even in light of other issues not related to Issachar.

President Reuven Rivlin expressed joy over Putin's decision to pardon Issachar. "I'm so happy to get the news about Naama. I would like to thank Putin for the compassion and wisdom he showed by taking the decision to pardon Naama."

On Monday, Issachar's lawyers announced that Russia had approved Issachar's pardon request, and the district governor had submitted it to Russian President Vladimir Putin's Bureau for a final signature of the president. A Kremlin spokesperson said that Putin will soon decide whether to pardon Issachar.

A member of Issachar’s legal team, Alexei Kovalenko, told Haaretz that pardons are rarely granted in Russia. “To date, the Russian president has never granted a pardon to a foreign national,” he said. “Still, the whole process so far has been extremely unusual, so anything could happen,"

In November, Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov was extradited to the United States on the instruction of Justice Minister Amir Ohana.

The Russian Embassy in Israel condemned the High Court’s rejection of Burkov’s petition against his extradition, noting that the “step did not contribute” to ties between Jerusalem and Moscow.

In December Israeli sources confirmed that Russia had pressured Israel to release Burkov in exchange for Issachar's release.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they meet in Moscow, Russia January 30, 2020.
MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

Bar Peleg and Reuters contributed to this report.