How will Lapid respond to the Russia-Jewish Agency affair? - analysis

If Russia continues to deny an Israeli delegation entry, retaliatory steps may need to be put into use soon.

 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)

With the Jewish Agency’s situation in Russia seemingly worsening at a rapid pace, some of the people involved, tangentially or directly, have started looking for someone to blame and honed in on Prime Minister Yair Lapid. 

“If Benjamin Netanyahu or even Naftali Bennett were prime minister, they would immediately pick up the phone to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and create a constructive dialogue,” a European Jewish leader told The Jerusalem Post this week.

“If Benjamin Netanyahu or even Naftali Bennett were prime minister, they would immediately pick up the phone to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and create a constructive dialogue.”

European Jewish leader

The Russians need to feel like they’re being shown respect, and the legal delegation Israel wants to send of “mid-level government employees” will have the opposite effect, the source maintained. Indeed, Moscow thus far has not given the group – led by Foreign Ministry Deputy Legal Adviser Tamar Kaplan – the visas it needs to enter the country and engage in talks with the government.

Lapid's Russia relations

Lapid has been prime minister for a month, and he and Putin have not talked, although the Russian president did send a letter of congratulations when Lapid entered office.

y contrast, Netanyahu had a lot of Putin time during his 12 years in office – on the phone, in person, in Jerusalem, in Moscow; and Bennett slipped in some phone calls and a visit to Putin’s dacha in Sochi before the Ukraine war began.

Those interactions made it a lot easier for Lapid’s predecessors to just pick up the phone when they needed to call the Russian president.

 A view shows a sign at the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow, Russia July 21, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA) A view shows a sign at the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow, Russia July 21, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)

They also haven’t accused Russia of war crimes, which Lapid did weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and which he slammed from day one. Lapid was the bad cop to Bennett’s good cop who thought it would be better for Israel if he maintained decent relations with Putin.

At the same time, Lapid has not tried to call Putin since the Jewish Agency crisis came to light. The view from the Prime Minister’s Office is that getting the leaders involved is not necessary yet, and doing so would be an escalation.

If the problem can be solved at the level of international legal experts from the Foreign Ministry and National Security Council, then the price Russia might try to exact could be lower than if Israel shows that it’s panicking and sends in the big guns. For the same reason, cabinet ministers were asked not to speak to the media.

That being said, the Prime Minister’s Office sent the opposite signal on Sunday when it released a statement in which Lapid said closing the Jewish Agency would damage Israel-Russia relations. Tough talk may be what those concerned about Russian Jewry want to hear, but it undermines the tactic of playing it cool.

Increased scrutiny

It’s worth noting that the authorities in Russia increased scrutiny of the Jewish Agency, along with that of other foreign NGOs, years ago, before the war with Ukraine began. That was before Lapid ever said anything about war and before Israel voted to condemn Russia in the UN or sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

hough Israel did all of those things, it has also been proceeding very cautiously in order not to cross any of Russia’s red lines. Jerusalem has not sent any military aid to Ukraine, for example, even though Lapid advocated doing so in closed-door security cabinet meetings at the start of the war.

It has not sent aid because Israel wants to continue the deconfliction mechanism with Russia that allows it to attack Iranian bases and weapons convoys in Syria without hitting the Russian Army.

Moreover, Israel’s cautious behavior is also out of a concern for what we might be seeing now: retaliation against Russia’s hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Despite Israel toeing that cautious line, it is undeniable that the pressure seems to have intensified in recent weeks, not only on the Jewish Agency but also with more vocal scolding from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, together with more criticism of Israel at the UN.

Despite Putin being very busy with his war on Ukraine, he had the time to send a letter to Bennett asking for Israel to speed up the process of transferring ownership of the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem to Russia, something that Netanyahu had promised in 2020 and the Jerusalem District Court blocked earlier this year.

Jerusalem doubts

So for all of the above, Jerusalem doubts Russia’s claim that this is a purely legal matter involving the Jewish Agency violating its laws, and views it as diplomatic. The delegation that Lapid sought to send to Moscow that still hasn’t been given visas was meant to figure out what the Russians want from Israel.

In the meantime, Lapid instructed the relevant parties to prepare possible retaliatory steps in case Russia shutters Jewish Agency offices.

Possibilities include recalling Israeli Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben-Zvi back to Israel for consultations, slowing down the Alexander Courtyard process, and even showing more support for Ukraine.

In keeping with the policy of trying to show a calm approach, those instructions were supposed to be secret and, in fact, were part of a classified meeting, but they leaked to the media anyway.

If Russia continues to deny the Israeli delegation entry, those steps may need to be put into use soon, or Lapid might just have to pick up the phone and talk to Putin.