(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin’s pardon of an Israeli woman imprisoned in Russia on drug-smuggling charges gave a much-needed electoral gift to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Naama Issachar, 26, was released Thursday from a prison outside of Moscow, according to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service. She was arrested in April and sentenced in October to 7 1/2 years for carrying a small amount of hashish on a transit flight via Moscow after a backpacking trip to India.
Putin pardoned Issachar late Wednesday. He had previously rebuffed Netanyahu’s appeals for her release and his about-face couldn’t have been timed better for the premier, who’s battling fraud and bribery charges ahead of March elections. The Israeli leader flew to Moscow from Washington, where he attended the unveiling of the U.S. Middle East peace plan, whose heavy tilt in Israel’s direction also favored his campaign.
Netanyahu said Russian-Israeli relations were the strongest in history as he thanked Putin at a Kremlin meeting, where the two men were due to discuss President Donald Trump’s new initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The prime minister’s Twitter account later posted footage of him greeting a smiling Issachar and her mother, Yaffa, at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. His plane later departed for Israel with the Issachars on board.
A Kremlin foreign policy aide said earlier this month that Israel and Russia had made progress in settling a dispute over the ownership of Russian Orthodox Church property in Jerusalem, which Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said could form part of a quid pro quo to secure Issachar’s release. The property wasn’t mentioned in public statements in Moscow on Thursday.
Yaffa Issachar asked the Russian leader in November to pardon her daughter in a letter handed to him by Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. Last week, she met with Putin in Jerusalem, where the president attended an international forum on the Holocaust on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Red Army’s liberation of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu was standing next to Trump and praising his peace plan as a “historic” opportunity to annex swaths of West Bank territory. With Issachar’s release -- she’ll be flying back home with him on his plane, Israeli media reported -- he now has another triumph to brandish as he faces the toughest battle of his political life.
Victory eluded him in two inconclusive elections last year, and he’s started framing the March 2 vote as a contest between a prime minister burnishing Israel’s security, economy and global standing, and the inexperience of former military chief Benny Gantz, a political novice.
His campaign also showcases Israel’s recent natural gas deals with Egypt and Jordan, for which he takes credit.
As of late Wednesday, Netanyahu’s achievements hadn’t pushed his Likud party past Gantz’s Blue and White bloc in the polls, though neither man is expected to have enough support to form a majority government and break Israel’s political stalemate.
(Updates with Issachar departing Russia in fifth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Henry Meyer, Alex Sazonov and Jake Rudnitsky.
To contact the reporters on this story: Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at email@example.com;Yaacov Benmeleh in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Pierre Paulden at email@example.com, Tony Halpin, Paul Abelsky
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