Russian threats to shutter the Jewish Agency are “mainly rhetoric,” former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told Haaretz on Monday, asserting that despite increasing tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem, Russia did not have an interest in degrading its ties with Israel.
Last Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Justice asked a local court to rule on the liquidation of the Jewish Agency for Israel, claiming that it had violated Russian law during its activities in the country. The news came only hours after it was reported that Israel had asked for clarification from Moscow following reports that the Kremlin had threatened to shut down the Jewish Agency’s operations amidst a sharp increase in immigration to the Jewish state.
A hearing on the issue is scheduled for July 28, which will determine the agency’s future in the Russian Federation.
Asked about the threat to close down the Zionist organization’s operations in the Russian Federation, Yatom — who headed Israel’s primary foreign intelligence agency in the late 1990s — said that while it’s impossible to get inside President Vladimir Putin’s head, it is likely that the Russian leader “would like to create an atmosphere of tension in order to smile towards Iran,” citing a recent meeting of Russian, Iranian and Turkish leaders in Tehran.
“It looks as if we are witnessing rhetoric[al] tensions because I’m not sure that Russia would to like to broaden and to deepen the crisis with Israel because Russia might suffer some things as well,” he said.
Russia and Putin “did not cut the relationship [and] the coordination of our flights (according to foreign sources) in Lebanon and in Syria continues,” Yatom continued, adding that despite laws requiring organizations receiving funds from abroad to register as foreign agents, “the Russians did not apply it on the Jewish Agency.”
Yatom asserted that Israel “should remain in the area of diplomacy” and that despite the fact that 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, “there is still space to talk to the Russians about diplomatic issues.”
“I don’t think that Israel should start pressing the Russians now as long as other than rhetoric nothing else comes out from the Russians,” he insisted.
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His comments came as several Israeli officials warned 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.
On Monday, several top foreign national security experts and diplomats told Haaretz that Israel should tread carefully and take measured action to resolve the crisis.
“I think that we should not be trigger-happy,” said former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror. “We have to find solutions which won't lead to miscommunication and disconnection between us and the Russians. If worse comes to worst, Israel can decide to take strong steps, but we should be careful about taking steps that further the gap between the two sides and deteriorate the situation.”
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.
However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Tuesday that Israel has taken an "unconstructive" approach to Moscow for months on the war in Ukraine with "anti-Russian statements," suggesting that the bilateral relationship was harmed well ahead of Moscow's recent maneuvering to shut down the Jewish Agency there.
"Unfortunately, in recent months we have heard, at the level of official statements, unconstructive and, especially, non-objective rhetoric," Zakharova said on Russian state TV to anchor Vladimir Solovyov, considered one of Kremlin's leading propagandists, referring to Israel's statements on Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Responding to Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s statement that taking action against the Jewish Agency "would be a serious event with repercussions on ties" between Israel and Russia, Zaharova said, "I want to ask, do these people think that their actions and statements in recent months have not already affected our relationship?"
Jonathan Lis and Liza Rozovsky contributed to this report.