Israel tries to reassure U.S. on Russia sanctions
During Secretary of State Tony Blinken's visit to the Middle East, Israeli officials sought to reassure the Biden administration they are taking steps to prevent Russian oligarchs from using Israel to evade U.S. and European sanctions.
Why it matters: Israeli officials have told me they were concerned in recent weeks about growing criticism in Washington — mainly in Congress and in the U.S. media but also among mid-level officials in the Biden administration — over its policy toward Russia.
- While Israel condemned the Russian invasion at the UN, it has maintained a neutral stance in the mediation efforts.
- Israeli officials have told the U.S. and other allies that Israel needs to take a careful approach to the Ukraine crisis to ensure that military cooperation with Russia in Syria continues.
Driving the news: Iran and the Russian invasion of Ukraine were the main issues discussed between Blinken, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and other officials during Blinken's visit, officials said.
- Israeli sanctions czar Keren Shahar and Lapid told Blinken that while Israel doesn't have sanctions legislation of its own, it is going over U.S. and European sanctions lists to ensure affected Russians aren't using Israel to sidestep the measures, two Israeli officials said.
- This includes putting new regulations in place that ban planes and ships that are not registered in Israel from staying in the country for more than 24 hours, the officials added.
- The Israeli officials told me this was done to prevent sanctioned oligarchs, including Israeli nationals, from using Israel as a safe haven for their private jets and yachts, which have been seized by European countries as sanctions are enforced.
- Of note: A number of Russian oligarchs, who are Jewish, have received Israeli citizenship in recent years.
Shahar also told Blinken that Israel's central bank imposed new guidelines on all financial institutions that prevent sanctioned individuals from transferring money to bank accounts in Israel, per the Israeli officials.
- Blinken was also briefed on the tightening of defense export controls related to Russia and work being done by the Israeli Ministry of Economy to raise awareness about the sanctions among Israeli tech companies who had business ties to Russia.
What they're saying: "Israel has no comprehensive sanction bill and yet we succeed in being part of the world — the global effort to stop this war through the sanctions," Lapid said at a press conference with Blinken after their meeting.
- Blinken said the Biden administration appreciates the work Israel is doing on sanctions, as well as "the foreign minister’s commitment to ensure that Israel is not used as any kind of back door for sanctions evasion."
- A senior State Department official told me the two countries will continue to work together on the issue moving forward.
Behind the scenes: Bennett privately briefed Blinken about his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as those with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a senior Israeli official.
- Bennett told Blinken that Israel will continue to coordinate its mediation efforts with the Biden administration, France, Germany and the U.K.
- Blinken said the U.S. values Bennett's mediation efforts and the two countries have been "closely coordinated throughout."