Israeli Delegation's Departure to Moscow Delayed Amid Jewish Agency Crisis

As Russia is yet to give its approval for the Israeli delegation of legal experts, Israel fears that it will not have enough time to hold significant talks before the opening of the preliminary hearing on Thursday

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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The Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.
The Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The departure of an Israeli delegation to Moscow was postponed since Russia has yet to give its approval to hold talks on its Justice Ministry's request to dissolve the Jewish Agency on Russian territory, Haaretz learned on Sunday.

The Russian Justice Ministry appealed to a court in Moscow last week with a request to shut down the Jewish Agency, which operates in the country as an independent Russian organization.

A preliminary hearing on the petition was scheduled for Thursday – the state-run Russian news agency reported. According to the report, the reason for the petition is the violation of Russian law by the agency.

Following the lack of Russian approval to receive the Israeli delegation, there are fears in Jerusalem that it will not have enough time to hold significant discussions before the opening of the preliminary discussion on Thursday.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset, today.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Israeli officials are finding it difficult to understand whether the solution to the crisis over the Jewish Agency in Russia is through legal or diplomatic channels. Is it a legitimate Russian legal move against the violation of privacy of Russian citizens because of the data collected about them, as the Russians claim, or is it diplomatic “revenge” for Israel’s actions in completely different arenas?

“It’s important to say that the demands of the Russian authorities from the Jewish Agency began back over a year ago, a long time before the war in Ukraine or the appointment of Yair Lapid as prime minister. It seems to be a legal incident that deteriorated into a diplomatic incident,” said an official involved in the contacts between the two countries.

Another official said that “so far, we have not managed to understand whether it is a diplomatic incident and whether they want to use it to take revenge or to get something in return in other, completely different areas. It could be that they are angry about the Israeli support for Ukraine, it could be anger over the Israeli attacks in Syria, and it could be that this is an attempt to speed up the transfer of the Alexander [Nevsky Church] to Russian hands. We can’t say at this stage,” the official added.

Russian President Putin chairs a meeting via a video conference call at a residence outside Moscow, Russia, in JulyCredit: Sputnik/Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin via REUTERS

For Lapid, this is the first major crisis with Russia that he is in charge of as premier. Lapid convened a special meeting on Sunday because of the confrontation with Russia. In contacts conducted between the two countries over the past few days, the Russians made it clear that this is a legal incident and it should be treated accordingly.

Lapid decided to play both sides: He made it clear that the incident, if it escalates, can be expected to have strategic implications. “Closing the Jewish Agency offices will be a serious incident that will affect relations” between the two countries, he said. The Foreign Ministry was instructed to prepare a diplomatic “toolbox” to solve the incident, and a basket of responses in case the incident deteriorates into a real crisis. Some officials want to take an aggressive stand, but at the same time Israel needs to preserve proper relations between the two nations because of its security interests.

In either case, the main effort for now is on sending a delegation of legal experts, headed by the Foreign Ministry’s deputy legal adviser, to make “every effort to exhaust the legal dialogue.” Israeli officials think a window of opportunity exists to reach an agreed upon solution before the preliminary hearing in court on the matter, scheduled for July 28.

Israel is still waiting for approval from the Russian government to receive the delegation. Officials outside the Foreign Ministry are unable to say whether the agreement to receive the delegation will be granted soon, before the start of the preliminary hearing.

The confrontations between Russian authorities and the local nonprofit that operates on behalf of the Jewish Agency is nothing new: Over the past two years, the Agency’s offices in cities outside of Moscow “suffered” from constant friction, including surprise audits, questioning of employees and fines over technical violations. Some Agency officials thought Russia was just flexing its muscles – but a month ago the Russian Justice Ministry sent a letter stating that the Agency had violated privacy laws because it collected personal information on citizens.

Relations between Israel and Russia are considered to be especially sensitive: Along with the military coordination in the skies over Syria, Israel fears that exacerbating relations between the two will lead Moscow to block the possibility of the some 600,000 members of the country’s Jewish community, who are eligible to make aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return, from doing so. This is an ongoing concern, which has led Israel to show flexibility in the past too. For example, when Russia invaded Ukraine, then-Foreign Minister Lapid insisted on continuing operating the flights between Moscow and Ben-Gurion Airport.

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