Hype and happy endings for Na'ama Issachar

There was a very effective local campaign to ensure a high level of awareness in Israel about Na’ama’s plight. However, all the hype and happy ending stuff may be backfiring.

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)
She’s no innocent lamb, nor is she the root of all evil.
No. I’m guessing that Na’ama Issachar, the 27-year old Israeli-American woman recently sprung from a Russian prison and spirited home on a private jet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife, is just sort of a little dumb, a little arrogant and also very, very lucky.
Dumb because I find it difficult to believe that she had no idea that there were 9.5 grams of marijuana tucked away in her suitcase, as she claims. Traveling to Israel last April from India, she likely saved a few shekels and took the long, cheap flight, via Moscow. Fine. She also likely knew that carrying any amount of marijuana across international borders is a serious crime. (She has, apparently, said that she had no idea there were drugs in her bag and it must have been a “plant.” Ok. Whatever.)
So, I’m surmising that she figured that she and her suitcase would slip through the sniffing dogs that are de rigeur in the baggage handling areas of most major international airports, and enjoy her last bit of India when home safely in Rehovot.
And, then, shit happened.
The dogs sniffed the contraband, Na’ama was arrested, imprisoned, tried and convicted of drug trafficking. She was meted an absurdly long sentence – 7.5 years – which was outrageous even for the outrageous justice system in Russia.
Now, just as I have some nagging doubts about Na’ama’s knowledge of the presence of pot in her suitcase, I’m also not buying into the notion of a fair trial in Russia. She was railroaded because she provided Russian President Vladimir Putin with enormous leverage in negotiating with Israel, for, well, whatever popped up. When she was arrested, a young Russian lad, Aleksey Burkov, accused in the US of multimillion dollar embezzlement and fraud was cooling his heels in an Israeli prison while his extradition proceedings continued. Putin wanted him exchanged for Na’ama, which put Bibi in a bind. Netanyahu held his ground and Burkov was extradited to the US last November, where he recently pleaded guilty to all charges.
His extradition spelled doom for Na’ama. Shortly after he was sent to the US, her appeal was denied and what ensued was a dark Russian power play intended to frighten and freak out. Na’ama was suddenly shipped off, with no notice, in the middle of the night, to a remote prison. She was, suddenly and quite intentionally, far from her tenacious, crusading mother, far from morale-boosting visits from Israeli consular officials, the Moscow rabbi and other supporters. Most importantly, she was far from the media, a constant noisy cluster poking around the case and attracting unwanted attention. Putin made swift business of the lot of them.
For good measure, and extra-chilling effect, the Russians even made a point of letting the world know that Na’ama had been sent off without all the warm clothing and books which her mother had provided.
And, it worked. The case got a lot more attention.
Na’ama’s banishment ended quickly, but the pressure was on. Israeli public opinion was mobilized and quickly at full throttle. Bibi and President Reuven Rivlin leapt into action, demanding her release. They were right to do so. The sentence was way out of whack with the crime, even in drug-intolerant Russia. Na’ama was a pawn. However, throughout this high-stakes drama I must say, the inevitable happy ending was so obvious. Putin was scheduled to be in Israel in January for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Love him or hate him, Putin was not going to cancel because of Na’ama Issachar, two-bit drug smuggler. And, if he came, as he would, he would be wrapped in ermine and sporting a bejeweled crown, entering the main stage on a fine white steed. Which, metaphorically, is exactly what happened. Putin was the white knight who stole the show.
Upon his arrival in Israel, he met (for the second time – they had become acquainted several days earlier in Russia) with Na’ama’s mother, Yaffa Issachar, who happened to be hanging out with the Netanyahus, and the Israeli press corps, and they all had a good laugh, some warm hugs and smiles, and Putin reassured Yaffa that “everything would be ok.” And, sure enough, Na’ama was released within days, just in time to hitch a ride from Moscow to Israel with Bibi and his wife on their privately chartered jet.
Now, I don’t begrudge Na’ama. Nor do I even fault Bibi for his politicking. I mean, there was a very effective local campaign to ensure a high level of awareness in Israel about Na’ama’s plight. Doing what Bibi did during an endless election cycle was a no-brainer.
However, all the hype and happy ending stuff may be backfiring. While her plight was extreme, Na’ama was not the most sympathetic heroine. I wouldn’t wish a day in any prison, never mind a Russian one, on my worst enemy. But, a 27-year-old carefree yoga aficionado flying home from what was likely an extended stay in Goa, living the simple, totally self-indulgent life, intercepted by Russian border control for smuggling drugs, well…
If she were a legit trafficker, or an innocent and unknowing mule for a drug “plant,” it is difficult to believe that the quantity of marijuana in her luggage would have been so trifling. It’s just not worth the trouble. Logic leads one to the assumption that the little stash was for personal use. And, she likely knew many fellow travelers who assured her that getting a small quantity through border control undetected, particularly as she was just a transiting passenger, was easy peasy.
Na’ama was terribly unlucky, and then she won the lottery. Her timing, in light of international events and commemorations, was impeccable. As our favorite newscaster on Eretz Nehederet [It’s a Wonderful Country] observed recently: “And, remember. If you’re going to get busted for drugs, make sure you do so right before an election.”
I understand her need to retreat and reclaim her privacy, independence, confidence, everything. However, what I would like to see from her is a sign; a sign that she understands that she has been wildly fortunate and that she has an enormous debt to society, and the more than 160 Israelis imprisoned around the world and forgotten. Their ongoing trauma should resonate to her core. It should scorch her soul. And she should play forward the gift of her freedom for the benefit of the anonymous and despondent.
Since her repatriation, the public love-in with Na’ama has toned down considerably. Social chatter is anything but pro-Na’ama. My young adult daughter is in the thick of it, attending art school in Tel Aviv. She was surprised, as was I, that many of her fellow students are anything but enamored of Na’ama. Her punishment was way harsh, but she also brought it on herself, or so they believe. There are so many innocents imprisoned, languishing in anonymity. Na’ama should not be celebrated. No one wishes her ill but, because of her own actions, she has become a public figure. And she owes a huge debt to society.
She was not the most deserving of the intense efforts of the highest officials in the nation. But, fate intervened and rescued her. That should resonate with her, every moment. She can do what she wants with her life. Be a social worker, yoga instructor. But she also should, and must, parlay her newfound celebrity, whether she wanted it or not, for the benefit of others, less fortunate.
Na’ama has been vested with power that she has a moral duty to apply to rescue those more deserving of redemption and liberation. Let’s hope she does so.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.