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Israel prepares responses to Russian threat over Jewish Agency

What happened: Prime Minister Yair Lapid convened an inter-ministerial committee yesterday to explore responses to Russia’s threat to close down the office of the Jewish Agency inside the country.

  • Last week the Russian Justice Ministry claimed the Jewish Agency was violating Russian law by illegally gathering information about Russian citizens and “actively working to help citizens leave who are experts in the fields of science and business, whose departure will be detrimental to the country”.
  • At yesterday’s meeting Prime Minister Lapid reaffirmed that relations with Russia are important for Israel, as is the large Jewish community in Russia. “Closing the Jewish Agency offices would be a serious event that would affect relations.”
  • Israel has decided to act on a dual path:
    • A senior legal delegation is hoping to visit Moscow and engage in dialogue with the Russian authorities. However, Russia has not yet cleared their entrance.
    • In parallel, the government will prepare for a range of diplomatic responses (see below).
  • Last week Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai implied that Israel’s stance on Ukraine was behind the Russian move: “Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine. The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel’s stance on the war is deplorable and offensive.”

Background: The Jewish Agency is the largest Jewish non-profit organisation in the world. Part of its mandate is to helps Jews emigrate to Israel.

  • The agency was founded in 1929 and until Israel’s independence served as the leading representative institution.
  • During the Cold War era Jews were not allowed to emigrate. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union around a million Russians emigrated to Israel.
  • Today there remains an estimated 600,000 Jews in Russia.
  • Last year around 7,000 Jews emigrated from Russia.
  • Since the invasion of Ukraine around 16,000 immigrants have arrived from Russia.

Context of Israel-Russia relations: Former Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett cultivated a personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whilst Bennett attempted mediation, as Foreign Minister Lapid was far more critical of Russia, accusing them of war crimes and of “serious violation of the international order”.

  • Since becoming prime minister, he has had no direct contact with Putin. Despite receiving congratulatory calls from many world leaders, there has been no response from Moscow.
  • Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel joined in condemning Russian aggression in the UN. They were the first country to set up a field hospital in Ukraine and sent over 100 tons of humanitarian aid. However, they stopped short of providing weapons to Ukraine.
  • Israel continues to operate against Iranian military targets inside Syria. It coordinates a ‘deconfliction mechanism’ with Russia so as to avoid inadvertently hitting any Russians on the ground. Russia has a supreme interest in maintaining its influence in Syria and the Russian Defence Ministry been increasing vocal in criticising Israeli strikes.
  • Israel’s finance ministry is looking for a solution for 57,000 Israeli-Russian pensioners to continue to receive their monthly pension (around £73 each) from Russia. Due to economic sanctions placed on international banking those payments are stuck.

What is Putin’s motivation: This is the question that no one in the Israeli government can accurately answer. Possible theories include:

  • Putin is angry at the holdup in regaining ownership of Alexander’s Courtyard.
    • This is a Russian Orthodox Church adjacent to the Church of Holy Sepulchre in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. In 1859, Czar Alexander II purchased the land and built the Alexander Nevsky Church. Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, the area was under the control of the Russian Imperial government and maintained its loyalty to White Russia thereafter.
    • The Church remains registered to the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2020 Netanyahu approved re-categorising ownership back to the Russian state, as a goodwill gesture following Russia’s release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman who was imprisoned after a small quantity of hashish was found in her backpack during a flight transfer in Moscow.
  • Putin is displeased with Israeli condemnations of his war in Ukraine.
  • Putin disapproves of Israel’s continued airstrikes in Syria.

Looking forward: A senior legal delegation is hoping to visit Moscow this week, but still requires authorisation from the Russian authorities.

  • On Thursday the Russian court will begin hearing the case to close Jewish Agency operations in Russia.

Possible Israeli responses: If the Jewish Agency is banned, there could be a range of Israeli responses:

  • Recall of the Israeli Ambassador for consultations.
  • Increase rhetoric in support of Ukraine and possibly expand assistance.
  • Deliberately holding up the transfer of the Alexander Courtyard.

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