The Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv is operating a branch of a government body whose goal is to persuade Russian emigrants to return, under the guise of a cultural center, Israeli intelligence bodies said. The cultural center, which opened about two months ago, is headed by a Russian intellectual, but the intelligence bodies believe he worked for the Soviet secret service, the KGB. Senior government officials have reportedly expressed concerns recently over the development of "competition" between Russia and Israel over where former Russians will reside.

The Russian Embassy was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Israeli intelligence bodies are certain that the Russian cultural center that opened two months ago on Geula Street in Tel Aviv is a cover for the local branch of the Sons of the Homeland movement established by Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring back Russians who had emigrated to Israel.

More than three million Russian-speaking Jews are living on five continents. A little more than a third live in Israel. They mostly came in the large wave of immigration after the then Soviet Union opened its gates. After Putin was elected in 2000, he established the Sons of the Homeland to maintain communication between Russia and its emigres, and eventually Putin charged the group with bringing back as many Russians as possible, especially those with choice professions.

The Jews' high level of education and the fact that they are concentrated in large communities have made them a desirable target for the organization. Putin's goal is not only economic; the millions who have left Russia since the fall of Communism are a blow to national pride. Putin also wants to counteract the image of Russian anti-Semitism in showing the country as a place that attracts Jews.

A number of groups, like the Russian-Speakers Congress, are considered fronts for the Sons of the Homeland.

The cultural center opened following an agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Putin, which also authorized several Israeli cultural centers to operate in Russia.

During last week's general elections in Russia, the cultural center held activities in 60 towns in Israel to encourage Russians to register and vote, and collected their contact details.

Meanwhile, some Israelis have reported received tempting job offers in Russia. "I was offered a job in a research institute in Moscow for $15,000 a year," said a leading academic in her field, who has been in contact with the cultural center. An she mentioned other enticements, such as an apartment.

The cultural center is headed by Dr. Alexander Kryukov, a leading Russian expert on Israeli culture with extensive connections in Israel, who has also translated a number of books from Hebrew into Russian. When the Russian government last year announced his appointment as a diplomat in the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Shin Bet security service tried to prevent him from receiving a visa, citing his past as a KGB spy. However, Russia insisted and Israel acquiesced to avoid a diplomatic incident.

Israel and Russia are not the only countries that want to court as many Russian Jews as possible; Germany is also encouraging Russian Jews to settle there, by giving individual grants and special funding to communities to assist in settling the newcomers. According to government officials in Berlin, the arrival of some 200,000 former citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States is an opportunity to rebuild the great pre-Holocaust Jewish community. Canada and Australia also have programs to encourage Russians with professions in demand to immigrate.

According to Immigration Ministry statistics, more than 100,000 Jews who came to Israel from the CIS have returned to Russia and Ukraine, and an estimated 70,000 Israelis are currently living in Moscow.

It was decided that in light of the competition for Russians, the program approved by the cabinet yesterday to bring back Israelis would marketed as early as next week in Russian and tailored to Russian employment needs.

The Russian cultural center activity gives the government organization Nativ, in charge of contacts with the Jews of the former Soviet Union and under the aegis of Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a reason to undergo a controversial expansion to other countries with large groups of Russian Jews.