Roman Abramovich Lands in Israel – but Has He Secretly Been an Israeli for Years?

As a Jew, Abramovich is eligible for an Israeli passport – but it's hard to see how he could have automatically received citizenship

Roman Abramovich, Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea Football Club,  arrives for the start of the afternoon session at the High Court in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Jan.17, 2012. Boris Berezovsky is suing for about $6.8 billion claiming Abramovich intimidated him into selling shares in two Russian companies for less than they were worth. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Bloomberg

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich arrived in Israel on Monday in his private jet. This in itself wasn’t an out of the ordinary event, as Abramovich is a frequent visitor, however this time his arrival was accompanied by reports in the Israeli media that the owner of the English soccer club Chelsea is here to receive Israeli citizenship. There was no confirmation from either government officials or sources close to Abramovich that this was indeed the case and it is quite likely that secretly, the oligarch has been an Israeli citizen for years.

Speculation over Abramovich’s current status began ten days ago when he was conspicuously absent from the final match of the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium in London. Chelsea’s victory over Manchester United was the highlight of its season and its owner’s absence was explained in the British and Russian media by the expiration of his long-term U.K. “investors visa.”

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In the wake of the assassination attempt on a former Russian double-agent, Sergei Skripal, two months ago in Salisbury, the British authorities have tightened up visa regulations for Russian citizens. Abramovich, whose wealth is estimated at between $9 and $13 billion, will have to supply the British government with some information on its sources in order to renew his visa.

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The new visa situation could have been the reason for the reports on his impending Israeli citizenship. Israelis, unlike Russians, enjoy visa-free travel to the European Union. But even though, as a Jew, Abramovich is eligible under the Law of Return for Israeli citizenship, it's hard to see how he could have automatically received such citizenship.

At the very least, the process of verifying and processing a citizenship request takes three months and often much longer. Sources in the Jewish Agency, the organization which processes most of the requests, insisted that Abramovich had not opened a file with them. There are two other ways for becoming an Israeli citizen – through Nativ, the government agency which maintains relations with Russian-speaking Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and other parts of the world, and in rare cases, directly with the Interior and Immigration Absorption ministries.

A source at the Interior Ministry confirmed that Abramovich had arrived in Israel but both ministries refused to disclose his citizenship status citing “privacy” reasons. The only way his citizenship could have been processed within the time-frame of his current visa problems in Britain would have been through an intervention at the ministerial level.

Roman Abramovich applauds after Chelsea was presented with the Premier League trophy at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, May 24, 2015.
Matt Dunham / AP

Interior Minister Arye Dery's office denied that he had any knowledge of Abramovich’s citizenship request. It is extremely unlikely that the process could have been completed so quickly without the minister being aware. If indeed Abramovich received citizenship upon arrival this week, as some Israeli news organizations reported, then he would have put the process in motion months earlier. Channel Ten News quoted an anonymous Nativ official saying that "Abramovich came to the Israeli embassy on Moscow just like anyone else and applied for Aliya. His documents were inspected in accordance with the Law of Return and he was found eligible." Even if this statement from the notoriously opaque agency is factual, it still remains unclear how long the process took for Abramovich, when it took place and why the minister of interior and other senior officials in his ministry which is in charge of citizenship were apparently unaware.

Perhaps the process began on one of his previous visits. His private jet, a Gulfstream G650, landed at Ben–Gurion Airport at least three more times in the past six months. And then, he may already have been Israeli upon arrival.

According to one senior source, Abramovich has almost certainly been an Israeli citizen for years. In the previous decade, a number of Jewish-Russian oligarchs received Israeli citizenship through a private arrangement with the Interior Minister’s office. The requirement for obtaining citizenship was to donate at least a million dollars to an Israeli organization. Most of these new citizens did not publicize the fact since they remain active in Russia where dual-citizenship, while legal, is often frowned upon and could be a bar to holding public office.

Israeli citizenship is for many oligarchs, who are constantly worried of incurring President Vladimir Putin’s displeasure, an insurance policy for a rainy day. Many of them have second or third homes in Israel and frequently visit. Abramovich is seen as one of the closest businessmen to Putin, who once referred to him in an interview as “our oligarch."

In recent years, due to public criticism, the private arrangement for oligarchs was discontinued.

Abramovich already has extensive ties in Israel. In 2015, he bought a building in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood for 100 million shekels which he has been extensively renovating ever since. Abramovich recently donated 70 million shekels to Sheba Medical Center. Whether or not he has been a secret Israeli for years, or he received it today, his ties to Israel go back a long while. Now he needs them more than ever.