The Jewish Agency canceled a board meeting planned for St. Petersburg, Russia, later this month, after Moscow yesterday told the Israeli embassy that it would not allow it to take place.
Agency sources attributed the diplomatic row to the presence on the board of businessman Leonid Nevzlin, who is a political enemy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The agency's board meets three times a year to determine policy. The meeting was scheduled to be in two and a half weeks in Russia, where agency chairman Natan Sharansky was born. It had been planned for months and was promoted as an historical event. It was to be attended by hundreds of Israeli and Jewish delegates from all over the world.
Sharansky announced officially that the St. Petersburg convention was canceled and would take place in Jerusalem instead. An agency spokesman said preparations took some three months and coordinated with the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the St. Petersburg governor.
In the last two weeks the agency and the Israeli embassy in Moscow received messages from Moscow objecting to the gathering. The official reason was that the agency, acting in Russia legally as a local NGO, could not hold an international conference.
An agency source said the Kremlin's real objection stems from Nevzlin's membership on the board. The Russian-born Nevzlin, who made his fortune as a high-ranking executive in the former Russian oil firm Yukos, settled in Israel six years ago after business partner Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested.
Nevzlin and other Yukos executives paid a heavy price for supporting some of Putin's political rivals, as Russia issued arrest warrants against them. Russia is seeking Nevzlin on allegations of attempted murder and corruption.
The Israeli Supreme Court has rejected the extradition requests, citing insufficient evidence.
"Obviously Nevzlin himself wouldn't have come to the meeting," an agency source said. "He wouldn't want to be arrested and end up like Mikhail Khodorkovsky in prison. But the fact that he's a member of the board is a red flag to the Russians."
A senior official blasted the agency yesterday for inviting hundreds of people to the event before making sure the Russian government would allow it to take place. The source said the agency's management was "amateurish."
"Someone probably didn't notice that Nevzlin's name appears on all the lists of governors' names passed on to the Russians. They should have known it would infuriate the Russians," the source said.
Agency officials also slammed the Foreign Ministry and especially Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who boasts of his close relations with the Russian administration.
Had they acted in time they could have avoided the embarrassment to the most active Israeli body operating in Russia, they said.
The Foreign Ministry and Lieberman's office refused to comment. Nevzlin's spokesman said, "we are not familiar with the case."
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