Naama Issachar is back home, but at what price? – analysis

Russia's sentencing of Issachar to 7.5 years for possessing 9.5 grams of pot was clearly excessive, and apparently an effort to place leverage on Israel.

Naama Issachar, who was arrested by Russia and given seven-and-a-half years in prison for carrying cannabis. (photo credit: COURTESY OF FAMILY)
Naama Issachar, who was arrested by Russia and given seven-and-a-half years in prison for carrying cannabis.
(photo credit: COURTESY OF FAMILY)
There is something wonderful about watching reunions: parents with children, wives with husbands, long-lost friends.
That is why it is often so moving to be in the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport, watching people reunite.
That is also why it was genuinely nice seeing the pictures on Thursday of Naama Issachar reuniting, after serving 10 months in a Russian jail, with her mother Yaffa, who moved heaven and earth to get her daughter freed.
Who among us could not relate to Yaffa’s concern? Who among us not could not share in her happiness at her daughter’s release? Who among us did not feel terrible for Naama, sentenced to 7.5 years in a Russian jail after being arrested in Moscow for having 9.5 grams of cannabis in her suitcase, on a stopover flight from India to Israel?
In a country divided by so much, one thing that unites us is a concern – most of the time – for Israelis who fall into captivity. That is why the country has been willing to pay huge prices over the years for captured soldiers, such as Gilad Schalit, and even for characters involved in shady business, such as Elhanan Tannenbaum.
(That same degree of concern and sensitivity has not, however, been on display regarding Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu and Bedouin Hisham al-Sayed currently being held by Hamas in Gaza.)
In a cold world, it is genuinely heartwarming to see a country rally around one of its countrymen. Still, some questions need to be raised about the Issachar case and its implications, which few were really willing to raise during the whole media circus surrounding her.
First of all, what responsibility does Israel have for its citizens who do dumb things?
Russia’s sentencing of Issachar to 7.5 years for possessing 9.5 grams of pot was clearly excessive, and apparently an effort to place leverage on Israel so it would not deport a Russian computer hacker from Israel to the US.
But still, should we make her into a national hero, and send the prime minister and his plane to Moscow to pick her up, as if she were a Prisoner of Zion newly released from the Gulag?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who worked hard with Russian President Vladimir Putin on this issue, was filmed telling Issachar on Thursday aboard his jet on the way back to Ben-Gurion: “What’s the moral? Don’t make stopover flights.”
Really? That’s the moral? How about, “Don’t carry pot in your suitcase.” Or, “Kids, say no to drugs.”
With all the empathy in the world for Naama, she made a mistake which the entire country will now need to pay for, though we have not been told what the price will be.
Putin is not as warm and cuddly as he looks. The veteran KGB foreign intelligence officer- turned politician does not give gifts to other states, nor is he known for making humanitarian gestures. Putin is driven by what he perceives as Russia’s interests.
He did not pardon Issachar in return for a hearty “thank you” from Netanyahu, and a meeting with him to talk about US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” He surely asked for something in return.
Perhaps for Israel to turn over ownership of church property in the Old City of Jerusalem to Russia, perhaps changing the route of the planned light rail to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem to skirt the Moscobia Convent, perhaps relinquishing other parts of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem to Moscow, or perhaps scaling back IAF actions over Syrian airspace.
We have not been told what the price is, but there certainly is a price.
The Issachar case also once again reveals Israel’s soft underbelly to its enemies. It is one thing to care for each and every citizen wherever they may be – an honorable trait – but it is another to show your enemies and adversaries that this is a point they can use as leverage.
The nation’s over-empathy with its youth that get into trouble abroad – partly out of a feeling that there but for the grace of God go my kids – also has ramifications.
Thousands of Israelis fly everyday through airports in countries whose leaders or governments are not numbered among our greatest friends: Jordan is one example, Turkey is another. Might the way Israel responded to Issachar whet the appetite of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or some unsavory and hostile character in the Jordanian government to nab an Israeli traveler to be used for leverage for something they want from Jerusalem?
Which is not to say that Jerusalem should have let Issachar rot in a Russian jail cell. Most definitely not, especially since the punishment was in no way proportionate to the crime. But might not it have been possible to work quietly through private diplomatic channels?
Issachar’s family, and one cannot blame them, apparently did not believe that would work, and made sure this would not be an option. They turned to the media, always hungry for a story full of emotion and pathos, and the media took this story and ran with it, pushing all of Israel’s right emotional buttons while turning Issachar into a cause célèbre.
Ironically, Netanyahu was pushed by public pressure to get involved, criticized at one time for boasting of having a special connection with Putin, yet unable to spring Issachar from prison. And now that he has secured her release, he will come under criticism in the press for using her release for his own political benefit.
This is one of those stories where contradictory statements can all be true.
Are we glad Issachar is home, free and safe? Of course. Are we concerned this shows the ease with which the media – when it gets behind a cause – can manipulate emotions and move the country into taking steps that perhaps it should not take? Certainly.
Does this affair show a wonderful side of the country that exhibits so much concern for the fate of one young woman? Yes. Does that over-empathy with one person place Israel in a vulnerable position in the future? Yes, as well.