Israeli Officials: Harsh Response Against Russia Over Jewish Agency Crisis Could Harm Strategic Interests

After Russia's crackdown on the Jewish Agency there, Israeli officials fear the Foreign Ministry's leaked contemplated responses might spark an escalation ■ Minister Lieberman labels Israeli reaction as 'obsessive and hysterical'

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Russian President Vladimir Putin participates in the plenary session of the Strong Ideas for a New Time forum in Moscow, July.
Russian President Vladimir Putin participates in the plenary session of the Strong Ideas for a New Time forum in Moscow, July.Credit: Alexey Maishev / AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Several Israeli officials are warning against undermining ties with Russia after a list of possible Israeli responses to Moscow's Jewish Agency crackdown was leaked.

On Sunday, Lapid ordered the Foreign Ministry to devise a list of possible responses to Russia if the latter bars the Jewish Agency from operating on its soil, as the government has asked a Moscow court to do. But several Israeli officials have voiced reservations about moves that may lead to an escalation and could undermine Israeli interests.

“It’s very enjoyable to flex our muscles against Russia through leaks to the media, but steps like this could cause the relationship between the countries to deteriorate and sabotage salient Israeli interests,” said one source involved in efforts to solve the crisis.

On Sunday, a senior political official also criticized the leaks about the steps Israel is supposedly considering taking, saying such proposals “undermine Israel’s strategic interests and many months of effort to preserve those interests.”

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman echoed those concerns Monday night. “The embassy is still working and Nativ is still working, and I think that here, too, the slightly obsessive and hysterical preoccupation is completely unnecessary,” Lieberman said in an Army Radio interview, referring to the agency responsible for processing immigration applications by Russians eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

“When you want to solve a crisis with someone, if there’s a misunderstanding, wrangling through the media doesn’t help," Lieberman added.

On Tuesday Israeli President Isaac Herzog responded as well: "For some things, silence is golden. I think the less we talk, the better, and that will allow us to properly address all issues." He said he is working with Lapid on this issue "in full cooperation" and "in full confidence."

Herzog added, regarding Russia's recent moves, "Sometimes we see things we don't always understand, and we don't see things from here as they do from there. Let's let the process run."

Lapid convened a special meeting on Sunday on the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia and warned that “closing the agency’s offices would be a grave incident that would affect relations” between the countries.

Jerusalem deems the relationship with Russia “particularly sensitive.” On top of the bilateral security coordination, which enables Israel to carry out airstrikes in Syria, some officials fear that a deterioration in the relationship could lead Moscow to bar hundreds of thousands of Russians eligible to immigrate to Israel from doing so. One Israeli official estimated that some 600,000 Russians are eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

This isn’t the first time Israel has refrained from taking action against Russia due to this fear. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, for instance, Lapid – then the foreign minister – ordered air traffic between Israel and Moscow to continue despite the aviation ban the West imposed on Russia.

Now Israel is considering asking a senior official, such as President Isaac Herzog, to speak with their Russian counterpart in an effort to solve the dispute. Herzog and Lapid met for a routine briefing Monday night.

The entrance to the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow, Thursday.Credit: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/ REUTERS

The Russian Justice Ministry asked a Russian court to halt the Jewish Agency’s operations in the country, and Israeli officials increasingly think it will be impossible to prevent the initial court hearing from taking place as scheduled on Thursday. The Russian ministry based its request on the claim that the agency violates Russians’ privacy.

A group of legal experts put together by the Israeli Foreign Ministry still hasn’t received visas from Russia to allow them to attend the hearing. Over the past few days, these experts have studied similar court cases in Russia over the years as well as the general climate in the country. Moscow has recently tightened the screws on a long list of international organizations with no connection to Israel, so they must now also contend with new restrictions.

The experts have also studied the case of Naama Issachar, the Israeli indicted in Russia on drug smuggling charges. Israel’s view was that Russia exploited a trivial incident to gain diplomatic leverage against it. (Issachar had a small quantity of soft drugs for personal use and was merely changing planes in Russia, so she never even left the airport.)

The organization that runs the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia has suffered serial harassment by Russian authorities over the last two years, mainly over violations that Israeli officials termed “technical.” This indicates that Russia seeks to hinder the agency’s activities. The organization has paid fines and waged legal battles over various issues during this period.

Even though Russian officials have told Israel that the current dispute is a legal one that will be handled in the courts, Israel increasingly thinks that Russian diplomatic interests stand behind it. Nevertheless, Moscow hasn’t yet made any diplomatic demands.

Sources involved in the crisis offered various possible explanations for why it erupted. These include Israeli backing for Ukraine, Moscow’s anger over Israeli airstrikes in Syria and the delay in transferring ownership of Jerusalem’s Alexander Nevsky Church to Russia.

In April, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the transfer of ownership had “long been at the top of Russia’s agenda in its relationship with Israel,” adding, “We expect the Israeli leadership to assist us in order to complete the process as is necessary.”

The church’s transfer to Russia was meant to lay the groundwork for Issachar’s release from a Russian jail two years ago by “improving the atmosphere.” But a few months ago, the Jerusalem District Court nixed the deal, saying it has to be approved by the cabinet rather than the Land Registry or the court because the church is a holy site.

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