Lapid: Closing Jewish Agency offices will impact ties with Russia

The decision follows the Russian Justice Ministry’s request on Thursday to shut down the agency’s activities. A court discussion is expected next week.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a cabinet meeting on 24/7/2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a cabinet meeting on 24/7/2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The forced closure of the Jewish Agency’s offices in Russia will have a serious impact on Israel-Russia relations, Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned on Sunday.

“Relations with Russia are important to Israel,” Lapid said, “[but] the Jewish community in Russia is large and important and comes up in every diplomatic discussion with the government in Moscow.”

Lapid’s remarks came after the Russian Justice Ministry took action against the agency, claiming it was illegally gathering information about Russian citizens. The Israeli organization, which coordinates efforts for Jews around the world to move to Israel, among other activities, has taken steps to move its Russian operations to Israel and online.

“Relations with Russia are important to Israel, but the Jewish community in Russia is large and important and comes up in every diplomatic discussion with the government in Moscow.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid

Jerusalem views the matter as diplomatic and not a legal matter. As such, Israel is considering numerous retaliatory steps should the Russian authorities shut down the Jewish Agency’s offices, including further delaying proceedings on the ownership of the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem, which Moscow believes should be its property, or further acts in support of Ukraine in the war with Russia. Another possibility is to call back Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben-Zvi for consultations.

The prime minister held a classified meeting on Sunday with Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata; Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who has served as the past two prime ministers’ translator in meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry and National Security Council, as well as from the Jewish Agency.

A participant in the meeting said that Russia’s actions were “an attack on the heart of the essence of the State of Israel. There is real fear that the aliyah [Jewish immigration] from Russia will stop, and therefore the Israeli government is investing as much time and effort as needed.”

Following up on a plan announced last week to send a legal delegation to Russia for talks about the matter, Lapid instructed delegates to be ready to fly to Russia immediately upon authorization from Moscow. He told them to make every effort to exhaust the legal dialogue and high-level diplomatic talks to allow the Jewish Agency to once again help Russian Jews immigrate to Israel.

Foggy departure plans

The delegation of Israeli legal experts, led by Foreign Ministry Deputy Legal Adviser Tamar Kaplan, was supposed to leave on Sunday, but its actual departure date remains unknown, because Russian authorities have not yet approved of their arrival, a government source said.

“We need to understand the political matters before making a decision on their departure,” the source said, explaining that legal advisers of Israelis ministries were chosen for the delegation even though the “understanding is that this is a diplomatic and political matter, not a legal issue,” a government source said on Sunday.

Russia began increasing scrutiny of the Jewish Agency about three years ago, along with a crackdown on foreign nongovernmental organizations. Authorities in Moscow intensified the probe in recent weeks, searching documents and computers.

Some observers have tied the move to Israeli criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, votes against Russia in the UN and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Israel has not sent any military aid and has tried to be careful not to jeopardize the deconfliction mechanism with Moscow that allows the IDF to strike Iranian targets in Syria, where the Russian Army has a major presence.

A source in the Jewish Agency said, “It is clear to everyone that the agency isn’t the story. The reaction of the prime minister says it all. The government understands that this situation is very serious and that Israel should threaten Russia with real actions and not just statements.”

A government source concurred, saying, “Everyone now understands that the management of this crisis is by the Prime Minister’s Office and it’s not an issue only of the Jewish Agency.”

Russian diplomacy

“Why isn’t Lapid speaking to Putin?” a European Jewish leader with decades of experience in the former Soviet Union asked rhetorically while speaking to the Post on Sunday. He explained that in his opinion, “Sending a delegation of mid-level government employees to Russia isn’t very impressive and will not have the effect it should have had on the Russian government.

“If Benjamin Netanyahu or even Naftali Bennett were prime minister, they would immediately pick up the phone to Putin and create constructive dialogue,” he said. “The way the Russians work is different from Western countries and there needs to be an element of respect between both sides. In this case, Israel is making many mistakes.”