Senior Israeli officials on Thursday denied reports of a diplomatic spat between Israel and Russia over supposed allegations that an Israeli diplomat had spied on Moscow.
The diplomat, Shmuel Polishuk, was until this week head of the Nativ delegation to Russia. He was asked to leave, and returned to Israel this week, not because of any alleged espionage activities, the officials said, but because of unspecified personal behavior inappropriate for a diplomat.
The Nativ organization, now in its sixth decade, was once part of Israel's intelligence community, operating clandestinely to maintain Israeli contact with the Jewish community trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Since the end of the Cold War, Nativ has transformed into a more transparent, and much smaller, Diaspora outreach and aliya agency in the Prime Minister's Office which focuses on Russian-speaking Jewish communities worldwide.
A Ma'ariv report Thursday claimed that Polishuk, 58, was expelled this week from Russia because he "was dealing in espionage and information-gathering." Nativ officials reportedly told the paper that Russian security agencies were following Nativ emissaries in Russia and interfering in their work, which is primarily to ascertain the eligibility of Russian Jews or their families to make aliya according to Israel's Law of Return.
But several officials at various levels of government told The Jerusalem Post that Polishuk's return to Israel early this week was not due to espionage charges.
According to ministry spokesman Yossi Levy, "the Israeli emissary [Polishuk] has not been declared persona non-grata. This is an administrative issue only, which is being dealt with in open discussions between the foreign ministries of these two friendly states."
According to a senior Israeli official familiar with the case, the "administrative issue" involves him being caught "behaving in ways inappropriate for a diplomat," which led to a Russian request to remove him from the Israeli diplomatic delegation in Moscow.
It had not affected the relations between the two countries, said the official, who is a senior Israeli diplomat. "We don't have any complaints about how they [Russian officials] handled themselves, or they of us. [Polishuk] forgot he is a guest in another country who must live according to their laws and regulations."
According to the official, "This was blown beyond proportion in the press. There was no spying, and nobody has even accused him of espionage. It is an administrative problem related to him personally, not to his official work."
Nativ refused to comment on the case, noting that the Prime Minister's Office was responsible for its public relations. That office also declined to answer questions, or to facilitate an interview with Polishuk. The office of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Nativ's political patron and an advocate of closer Russian-Israeli ties, also declined to comment.
A representative of the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment as well, saying the matter was being discussed internally.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Victor Zubkov told the Post Thursday that he first heard about the incident on his way to Israel on Wednesday.
While confirming that the Nativ representative was indeed asked to leave Russia, Zubkov downplayed the incident's importance.
"I don't think this issue is crucial at all in our relations," he said, noting that it did not come up in his talks in Jerusalem. Zubkov met during his two-day visit with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
"I can assure you that this issue will have no influence whatsoever on our political and economic relations," he said.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.