"No, of course, this is not a crisis in official bilateral relations. As the government of Israel, we are interested in continuing to develop as good relations with Russia as possible. I say this officially as a co-chairman of the Israeli-Russian Intergovernmental Commission," Elkin, a Russian-speaking minister of environment and Jerusalem affairs, said on Thursday.
"On the other hand, it would be wrong to underestimate the change in the public climate in Israel in the last week, after this sad story with Naama Issachar and her conviction for a term that seems to all Israelis, and to us as the government of Israel, absolutely illogical and unjustified," he added.
Issachar, an Israeli national with dual American citizenship, was arrested earlier this year in Russia en route home from India. She was found guilty of drug-smuggling and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. The penalty has been harshly criticized in Israel as "disproportionate" and as an attempt to gain extra leverage in Russia's fight against almost imminent extradition of its citizen Alexei Burkov to the United States, where he was allegedly wanted for hacking activities.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin have already sent letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him to pardon Issachar and send her back home. The Kremlin has promised to consider Israeli leaders' request as soon as it is received via diplomatic channels.
Israeli government has explored all legal options but has found no solution that would prevent Russian national Alexei Burkov's extradition to the United States from Israel, making it imminent in the near future, Zeev Elkin said.
"If Burkov were an Israeli prisoner, convicted in Israel, such a solution could be discussed. But he was arrested in Israel as a result of an American appeal to Interpol and was not convicted in Israel. He goes through the extradition process, almost the entire legal process has already passed," Elkin, a Russian-speaking minister of environment and Jerusalem affairs, said.
"There is a decision of the Israeli Supreme Court on the extradition of Burkov following an American appeal. In this situation the Israeli government is not authorized and has no legal right to do anything. The issue of extradition of Burkov has already been decided on judicially, his extradition will happen in the near future," Elkin added.
The minister claimed that the US extradition request relied on "clear evidence", incriminating Burkov of "committing a crime on American soil against American citizens." Meanwhile, Russia’s counter-appeal, according to Elkin, stands no chance "to pass the test at the Israeli Justice Ministry or the country's courts."
"This is not a situation where there are two equivalent requests for extradition and we must make a political decision where to send him. Legally in this situation there is no other option but to extradite Burkov to the US. Therefore it cannot be a solution to the problem of Naama Issachar, not to mention that there is no connection between her case and Burkov’s one," Elkin concluded.
Elkin ruled out the possibility of exchanging Burkov, who is allegedly wanted for hacking activities, for Naama Issachar, an Israeli national with dual US citizenship, who was arrested earlier this year in Russia en route home from India. She was found guilty of drug-smuggling and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison, a penalty criticized in Israel as "disproportionate" and seen as an attempt to get extra leverage over Burkov's case.