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Netanyahu (L) and Putin in Moscow in January 2020. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia has brokered an unusual prisoner swap that saw Syria release an Israeli woman who crossed into the country on Thursday, Israeli officials say.

The big picture: The two weeks leading up to the deal involved a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the capture of two Syrian shepherds by Israel as bargaining chips, and the refusal of a Syrian prisoner to leave prison as part of the deal.

The backstory: An Israeli woman in her 20s crossed into Syria two weeks ago via the Golan Heights, entered a village and began speaking with local people.

  • Someone apparently alerted the Syrian military that an Israeli had wandered into the village, because she was arrested and taken for questioning by Syrian intelligence officers.
  • The Syrians initially suspected that she was a spy, as did Israeli officials who heard an Israeli woman had been captured. But it soon became clear that she was a civilian.
  • The Syrians notified Russian forces in Syria, who informed the Israelis of the full situation. At that point the Israelis made clear that they viewed this as a humanitarian issue and asked the Russians to facilitate a deal.

The Syrians quickly agreed to the idea of a prisoner exchange, but the process was dragged out over two weeks due to a series of complications.

  • The Russians initially tried to broaden the discussions, asking Israel to restrain its airstrikes in Syria on the grounds that they make it more difficult to transport humanitarian aid. In addition to Netanyahu's call with Putin, the Israeli defense and foreign ministers also spoke to their Russian counterparts.
  • A deal was eventually reached: Israel would release two Syrians convicted of terrorism-related offenses.
  • On Wednesday, Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat traveled to Moscow, where the Israeli woman had already been taken. An Israeli doctor deemed her in good health and ready to travel.

But then there was a snag. One of the prisoners said he would rather remain in an Israeli prison for the 14 years left in his term than be deported to Syria, the Israeli officials say.

  • However, Israeli soldiers had already been sent to the buffer zone between Israel and Syria in search of bargaining chips. They had waited for two shepherds to cross into an Israeli enclave and captured them.
  • Syria ultimately agreed to swap the Israeli woman for the shepherds. They were released on Thursday, and a jet departed from Israel to bring the woman home.

Behind the scenes: The incident was kept under a strict gag order for the past two weeks due to concerns that any press reports could sabotage the deal.

  • On Tuesday, the Israeli Cabinet convened urgently under a veil of secrecy. The ministers themselves didn’t know what it was about until they arrived at the Prime Minister’s office and were asked to sign nondisclosure forms.
  • The Israeli military censor banned Israeli media from reporting any details about the Cabinet meeting beyond the fact that it took place, leading to speculation across the country about what had happened.

Between the lines: It's still unclear what led the Israeli citizen to cross the border.

  • Israeli officials say she had studied Arabic and was previously stopped trying to cross the border fence into Gaza.
  • “She seems like a person in need of adventure," an Israeli official told me.

What's next: She's expected to be interrogated by Israeli security services upon her return to assess why she traveled to Syria.

Go deeper

Feb 17, 2021 - World

Sudan unveils new Cabinet amid economic crisis

Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi in 2014. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty

Khartoum — After several months of political wrangling, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has unveiled his new Cabinet.

Why it matters: The Sudanese government is facing a deepening economic crisis that is fueling street protests and criticism from political allies.

Feb 17, 2021 - World

Biden finally calls Netanyahu

Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner at the prime minister's residence in 2010, in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

President Joe Biden spoke on the phone today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one month after taking office.

Why it matters: In recent weeks, the White House faced questions over Biden’s decision to call the leaders of a dozen allies and world powers before calling Netanyahu. 

Feb 19, 2021 - World

What to make of the Biden administration's first overseas calls

Expand chart

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to wait a month for a call from President Biden, and while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a call Thursday, it came not from Biden but from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The big picture: Biden, Austin, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have together called officials from at least 43 countries, with Blinken alone calling 39 (there’s considerable overlap between their call lists).