A Russian hacker and election gimmicks: The diplomatic crisis around Naama Issachar

Sources involved in the negotiations said Russia decided to use Issachar as a bargaining chip for the release of a Russian hacker.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara meet Naama Issachar and her mother Yaffa in Moscow on January 30.  (photo credit: GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara meet Naama Issachar and her mother Yaffa in Moscow on January 30.
(photo credit: GPO)

An Israeli who was behind held in a Russian prison on drug charges was forced to stay in jail for an extra day so that Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could get a photo-op for his election campaign in 2020, according to a new episode of KAN 11's "Zman Emet" investigative program broadcast on Tuesday.

Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American dual citizen was arrested during a stopover at an airport in Moscow in 2019 on charges that she was carrying 9.5 grams of cannabis. A Russian court sentenced her to 7.5 years in prison but she was released in a matter of months after intensive efforts by the Israeli government, but the new investigation by KAN found that the government's efforts may have caused more damage than good.

Issachar's arrest linked to extradition of Russian hacker

According to Zman Emet, the case of Issachar has its roots in the arrest of Russian hacker Aleksei Burkov in 2015. Burkov had been wanted by the US for running a forum on which stolen credit card data was published, although Burkov has also been linked to exclusive Russian hacking forums which are used by some of the world's most-wanted cybercriminals.

According to Krebs on Security, Burkov also used the alias "K0pa" (pronounced Kora) and served as a co-administrator on the hacking forums Mazafaka and DirectConnection and was a central figure on a number of other cybercrime forums.

Naama Issachar, alongside her mother Yaffa, prepares to return to Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 30, 2020  (credit: Lahav Harkov)Naama Issachar, alongside her mother Yaffa, prepares to return to Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 30, 2020 (credit: Lahav Harkov)

Michael Ironi, the public defender who represented Burkov in Israel, told Zman Emet that even after Burkov confessed to the charges of stealing credit card information, he was contacted by an individual calling himself "Mister Jones" who told Ironi that the US was willing to reach a  plea deal with Burkov if the hacker agreed to cooperate with them.

"I don't think the Israelis realized to what hell they were entering."

Michael Ironi, the Israeli public defender who represented Aleksei Burkov

"I don't think the Israelis realized to what hell they were entering," said Ironi, indicating that the US hoped to use Burkov to find information on other hackers and discover if he was being backed by the Kremlin.

Ironi added that once Burkov understood that they were trying to figure out who was backing him, he closed up. Shortly afterwards, Russian officials began to take a closer interest in the case.

Yuval Kaplinsky, former director of the Department of International Affairs at the State Attorney's Office, told Zman Emet that he was contacted by the Russian ambassador to Israel who asked him "How would you feel if some country was extraditing an Israeli citizen to Iran?"

He added that the Foreign Ministry was contacted by the Russian Commissioner for Human Rights who claimed that plans to extradite Burkov to the US went against his human rights. Kaplinsky called such statements "unprecedented."

The State Attorney's Office official also took part in a meeting with then justice minister Ayelet Shaked in Russia during which the prosecutor general of Russia hinted that Burkov was "innocent" and being incriminated by fabricated evidence by the US. The prosecutor general asked Shaked to stop the extradition.

Russian hacker Alexei Burkov at a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)Russian hacker Alexei Burkov at a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

"We were concerned that maybe there was an element here concerning what Aleksei Burkov knows personally. Maybe they didn't want to see him extradited to the US because they felt that he is sort of a person who worked for them and they owed him, but this is all speculation. We don't know. But the pressure rose."

Ironi added that during the meeting with Shaked, the Russian officials presented an offer that any Israeli citizen arrested in Russia would be transferred to Israel for judgment. "A very generous offer, at first glance."

Russia then requested that Burkov be extradited to Russia for similar crimes as the American request. The request included a 12-page confession by Burkov to the Russian consul detailing how he hurt Russian citizens.

"We were essentially in a vise-grip between two superpowers," said Kaplinsky.

Amid the growing pressure from Russia, Ironi was contacted by Vladimir Shternfeld, a central figure in Russia's Jewish community, who told him that "The Jewish community in Russia is very concerned with the situation of the Jew jailed in Israel." Ironi responded that he was not aware that Burkov had Jewish roots, with Shternfeld telling him that "we dug and he has Jewish roots. The State of Israel needs to understand that they are extraditing a Jew to foreign hands."

Russia used Naama Issachar as a bargaining chip

Daniel Kogan, the manager of the campaign to release Naama Issachar, told Zman Emet that he was first made aware of Issachar's case by a friend who is a journalist. While Kogan told them to act quickly and make noise in the media, Issachar's attorney told them to stay quiet, advising that issues in Russia are closed with quiet.

Three months later, the journalist called up Kogan again, stating "Daniel the story became complicated." The judge had made the charges more severe and would not consider house arrest as a possible sentence.

Kogan decided to contact the manager of an investment fund in which a number of Russian oligarchs are involved. The manager said he would help and sent two people to Issachar's hearing to write down what was said.

"He contacted me two days later and said 'Daniel, drop it,'" said Kogan. "The two Russians said clearly that they don't intend to deal with this, it got to the highest levels and they were told something like this: 'If you deal with this again, we will see it as treason.'"

One of the ways that it became clear that Issachar was being used as a bargaining chip in Burkov's case was a post published by a man who said he was a friend of the hacker's who wrote that "Naama will remain in jail as long as this guy is not returned to Russia." Kogan managed to track down the man who wrote the post and found out that he had been in jail with Burkov.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and Vladimir Putin reached understandings that allow Israel freedom to act and Naftali Bennett is eager to retain them. (credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS) BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and Vladimir Putin reached understandings that allow Israel freedom to act and Naftali Bennett is eager to retain them. (credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)

Kogan detailed how his campaign worked to get the story to Netanyahu, finding Sara Netanyahu's barber and getting him to agree to pass the message on to the prime minister. The activist stressed that the case was important for the then prime minister because "Netanyahu, who bragged about his relationships with world leaders, with Putin, had suddenly become a tool for blackmail."

The day before Issachar was sentenced, Kaplinsky met with National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin who told him that "she is going to get seven years tomorrow, and the name Naama Issachar will move from the bottom of the eighth page to the main headline on the front page."

"It was clear that now she wasn't a prisoner because of drug charges. For drug charges, she got two years, but she received five extra years for being Israeli in a period when Israel was not responding to a request by the Russians," said Kaplinsky to Zman Emet. 

Ben Shabbat also spoke to Zman Emet, saying that while the National Security Council (NSC) would usually not deal with cases such as Issachar's, Elkin contacted him and told him that "this is a story that could develop into an issue that would interest the NSC."

"There was a concern of possible consequences on Israeli-Russian relations, which would affect the national security considerations of the State of Israel...There's an understandable sensitivity in the relations between us and Russia. The Russians are present in the military sphere in our region, Israeli operates in the military sphere and we have an interest not to clash," explained Ben Shabbat. "An Israeli was imprisoned in Russia on the background of very, very sensitive relations between us and the Russians. We believed that we needed to immediately handle this situation while it was small, so that it wouldn't, God forbid, develop into a crisis or something that would harm relations."

"The issue came up in a conversation between the prime minister and Putin. Putin heard and said 'I'll check.' The Russians also presented us with a request to check the issue of the Russian citizen arrested by us," added Ben Shabbat.

Kapinsky stated that Netanyahu's decision to mention Issachar likely led Russia to raise the price they demanded for her release. "The Russians, in their view, suddenly revealed that among all the prisoners sitting in jail in regular procedures, they struck gold. When the prime minister raises a specific name, seemingly this is someone very, very, very important and if the prime minister is putting their name on the table, we, the Russians, will raise the price."

Meanwhile, Ben Shabbat explained that he felt that Burkov needed to be extradited to the US quickly and quietly because as long as he was in Israel, the chances to move forward in the case of Issachar would remain low. "The story of Burkov in the case of Naama was a stumbling block, not an opportunity, a stumbling block. We needed to remove the stumbling block from the path between us and the Russians."

Despite the pressure being placed on Israel, Burkov was extradited to the US in November 2019. Despite requests by Israeli officials to keep the extradition low profile, photos of Burkov handcuffed and surrounded by US martials were published online.

"We asked for it to be low profile, we didn't want there to be things that would stir up grudges. I can say that when you see photos of your citizen being extradited, it doesn't make you feel good," said Ben Shabbat.

With Burkov out of the picture, a new ransom payment was found

After Burkov was extradited, Russian officials seemed to treat the case of Issachar as finalized.

According to Zman Emet, officials in Israel received messages from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) reading "Israel will not get to see Naama Issachar every again. Forget that there was ever such a girl because the Israelis have no gratitude."

Shortly after Burkov's extradition, however, elections were declared in Israel, with Kogan telling Zman Emet that he and the campaign for Issachar's release saw this as an opportunity to place pressure on Netanyahu. "You can't boast about your relationships with world leaders while on political blackmail like this you can't succeed to solve this crisis." Kogan pointed out that placing the media focus on releasing Issachar would also help take attention off the cases against Netanyahu. "He got a present and he took it with two hands."

"Because the payment for the release of Naama Issachar was no longer Burkov, the interest was to explain to the Russians as long as you want to continue discussing Naama Issachar and we have an interest in this, we would like to talk about her and other elements that Israel will pay for the release of Naama Issachar."

The new price for the release of Issachar? The Church of St Alexander Nevsky in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Russia had been trying since 2015 to gain control of the Church of St Alexander Nevsky, but Israel had been avoiding discussing the request up until the crisis surrounding Issachar. The people holding ownership over the church was an organization of Russian expats called the Orthodox Palestine Society (OPS). According to Russian sources, Netanyahu promised to give ownership of the church to the Russian government.

A representative of OPS, Shai Gimelstein, told Zman Emet that "in order to release Naama Issachar, there was essentially an agreement made between the Russian Federation and the government of Israel. The state committed to giving Russia this property, despite it not being a Russian property and not being a property of the state."

"Essentially, the state committed to giving the Russians a property to which the state has no link or connection. We filed a clear, detailed objection, full of evidence and documents, that proves that this property does not belong to the Russian Federation," said Gimelstein.

In response to a question about whether or not Netanyahu made such a promise to the Russian government in order to guarantee Issachar's release, Ben Shabbat told Zman Emet that Russia and Israel often "make gestures" for each other without any explicit agreements.

Netanyahu used Mandate-era law to block courts from the issue of the church

In order to hold up his promise, in October 2020 Netanyahu used a measure from the British Mandate era called the "Palestine (Holy Places) Order in Council, 1924."

When the State of Israel declared independence in 1948, the new Israeli government decided that the law which existed in Mandatory Palestine, which consisted of both British mandate-era law and Ottoman law, would remain in force in the new State of Israel. Laws and ordinances such as the order in council, as well as the Defence (Emergency) Regulations (which include the military censor and administrative detention, among other regulations), became part of Israeli law under this decision.

The Palestine (Holy Places) Order in Council rules that "no cause or matter in connection with the Holy Places or religious buildings or sites in Palestine or the rights or claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine shall be heard or determined by any Court in Palestine." In cases where there is a doubt about whether or not a property is subject to this Order in Council, the prime minister is given authority to decide on the matter. (Up until 2004 the religious affairs minister was given this authority)

Netanyahu used this authority to declare the Church of St Alexander Nevsky a holy site and render the courts unable to decide on the ownership of the property. The day afterward, the Land Registry, which is part of the Justice Ministry, registered the property as owned by the Russian Federation.

This was the first time that the Order in Council was ever used in the State of Israel in this manner.

"The fact that the government of Israel allowed itself to lead the release of someone who was caught on drug charges in the middle of a round of elections for the 23rd Knesset and did so by essentially selling property which is not linked to it and which it has no claim over, should, in my opinion, disturb anyone for whom the rule of law is important," said Gimelstein to Zman Emet.

In March of this year, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that, according to the Palestine (Holy Places) Order in Council, then prime minister Naftali Bennet and his cabinet would need to make the final decision concerning the ownership of the property. Bennett had established a ministerial committee in July 2021 to decide on the matter but no decision has been reached as of yet.

In April, Ynet reported in that Putin had sent a letter to then prime minister Bennett requesting that the church be transferred to the control of the Russian Federation. Sergei Stepashin, who heads the association in charge of Russian assets in the Middle East, stated that "we worked for five years, we found all the historical documents, but the situation with Ukraine occurred, and Israel behaved as it often does – playing with both sides, playing ping pong with everyone."

Issachar's mother made to wait an extra day so Netanyahu could get a campaign photo

Once an understanding was reached between Russia and Israel and Putin pardoned Issachar, Issachar's mother, Yafa, received a discrete message from the chief rabbi of Russia telling her "Yafa, I made sure that your daughter will exit now from the gates of the prison," according to Kogan. Yafa headed to the prison and sat in front of the gates and waited for six hours before giving up and leaving, with Kogan telling Zman Emet that she said "'I was sure that I was getting Naama now."

Shortly afterward, Israeli media began pushing that Netanyahu would be heading to Moscow to bring Issachar back to Israel on the prime minister's airplane. Netanyahu met with Issachar and her mother surrounded by the media, heavily publicizing the move during an election season.

"The public media festival that we too are taking part in is over the top, the diversion of the plane from Washington and the arrival here was intended for the election campaign of Netanyahu. This is a much more political, campaign-related event and a lot less of a diplomatic event," said a KAN news reporter at the time.

Where in the world is Aleksei Burkov?

After being extradited to the US, Burkov was sentenced to nine years in prison, but released early in 2021 and deported back to Russia for unknown reasons.

"To our surprise, we suddenly got a message that the US was transferring him to Russia at the request of Russia. Since then we have not heard from him, there was no information about him," said Vadim Shub, head of the Jerusalem Public Defender Office, to Zman Emet.

Despite disappearing after returning to Russia, Zman Emet managed to track down and call Burkov who rejected claims that he is the "greatest hacker in the world," saying "that's an exaggeration. I'm not the biggest hacker in the world and I'm not even a hacker. The only thing I can break into is my grandmother's cabinet."

Referring to his extradition and trial, Burkov stated "my luck was less fortunate than your citizen's (an apparent reference to Issachar). The president of Russia pardoned her very quickly. I sat in your jail for four years and for two years in the US. In the US they wanted to give me 70 years. I was forced to admit guilt and apologize. I did this and they sentenced me to fewer years."

When asked why the US returned him to Russia, Burkov stated that he "does not want to talk about this because I am tired of this story." When Zman Emet mentioned that Russia worried about Burkov while he was being held in Israel, Burkov chuckled and responded "yes, there were many caring for me."

Burkov denied having any connection to the Kremlin and added that he had never said that Russia wanted to help him, despite saying right beforehand that Russia had been worried about him while he was in prison.

When asked what happened when he returned to Russia, Burkov stated that he was "not interested in telling this story. This is my personal situation. I can only say that my condition is now somewhat better. We now have a new life. That's all I can say." He did not clarify who he was referring to when he said: "we."