Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned a young Israeli accused of drug charges ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. The release of Naama Issachar, who had been sentenced to 7½ years in prison, ends a bitter controversy that had plagued relations between the two countries.
Why it matters: Relations between Russia and Israel turned frosty following Israel’s extradition of Russian citizen Alexei Burkov to the United States Nov. 12, 2019, on charges of complicity in cybercrimes. At the time, Moscow expected Burkov to be swapped for Issachar.
Last week, Al-Monitor reported that Putin had received a “smart reception” in Israel, which in theory opened up the opportunity for a renewed round of engagement.
Netanyahu is in yet another election cycle. Touring Washington and Moscow has become a key tool in raising his popularity at home as a sign of Israel’s successful relationship with both powers under the prime minister’s guidance. This time he is meeting with Putin to pick the Russian president’s brain on Russia’s attitudes vis-a-vis US President Donald Trump’s peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Better safe than sorry: Until recently, Russia had been extremely skeptical about the Trump proposal.
“The information we have shows that this future ‘deal’ will destroy everything that has been accomplished so far,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in February 2019.
At the time, Moscow was hosting 12 Palestinian movements in an attempt to reconcile the divisions between them.
Following Trump’s release of the peace plan, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was less dismissive. “The parties to the conflict have to embark on direct negotiations and look for mutually acceptable compromises,” said Bogdanov, whose portfolio covers the Middle East. “We don’t know yet if the American proposal is mutually beneficial.”
If regional actors “at least start negotiations on its basis, that would be a common success, and I think it is not as important who suggested the plan in the first place," Russian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Konstantin Kosachev said.
What’s next: Some policy experts in Moscow interpreted Russia’s cautious change in tone as a sign that Moscow is willing to jump on board if it finds an opening for itself. Well aware of the complexities of the plan, the divide it has created among Arab elites and its general dismissal by the Arab street, Moscow has adopted a wait-and-see approach. If the plan is rejected and fails, Russia won’t look like the one that torpedoed it. If it goes through, which is unlikely without some Russian and, perhaps, European engagement, Moscow will have a stake in the process and won’t feel sidelined by the Trump initiative.
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