Jul 27, 2022 - World

Israel-Russia tensions high over Moscow's move to ban Jewish Agency

Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Photo: Ronen Zvulunk/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Photo: Ronen Zvulunk/AFP via Getty Images

Russia's move to suspend an agency that helps Jews immigrate to Israel has led to heightened tensions between Israel and Russia that risk severely hurting the two countries' bilateral relationship.

Why it matters: It could also significantly limit the emigration of Jews from Russia to Israel at a time it is on the rise and hamper education and welfare operations among Jewish communities in Russia.

Driving the news: Not long after Yair Lapid assumed office as Israel's caretaker prime minister late last month, Russia's Justice Ministry started a legal proceeding against the Jewish Agency, which helps facilitate the immigration of Jews worldwide to Israel.

  • The ministry claimed it violated Russian privacy laws by holding a database of applicants.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli government initially didn’t intervene, but two weeks ago, a series of exchanges made it increasingly clear to the Israeli government that the issue may be politically driven.

  • In some conversations, Russian officials said it was a legal issue, and in others, they hinted it might be connected to Israeli policy regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Israeli officials said.
  • After a meeting with senior ministers about the crisis on Sunday, Lapid said publicly that suspending the work of the Jewish Agency will have consequences for bilateral relations and in private ordered the Foreign Ministry to prepare a set of responses, according to sources who attended the meeting.

The other side: The Russian government spoke publicly about the issue for the first time on Tuesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova saying the issue was legal, not political, but also hinting that Lapid has taken a biased anti-Russian position during the war in Ukraine.

  • Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who spoke shortly after Zakharova, also said the matter was legal and added that Russia doesn’t want it to influence the bilateral relationship with Israel. Peskov didn’t mention Ukraine.

Between the lines: While Israel has rejected calls to provide advanced weaponry to Kyiv, it has gradually taken a more pro-Ukraine position than it did when Russia's invasion began in February.

State of play: Lapid issued a statement later on Tuesday welcoming Peskov’s remarks, stressing the importance of the bilateral relationship and proposing to start a dialogue on the issue of the Jewish Agency.

  • Israeli officials said they feel Peskov’s comments were a sign that the Kremlin doesn’t want a crisis with Israel and that the issue will be solved.

What's next: An Israeli legal delegation will travel to Moscow Wednesday evening for talks with Russian officials about the legal procedure around the work of the Jewish Agency in the country, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said.

  • The Russian government approved the meetings with the delegation and gave visas to its members on Wednesday — six days after Israel requested them.
  • Israeli officials hope this is another sign of Russian willingness to solve the crisis.

What to watch: The Moscow court is expected to hold a hearing about the Jewish Agency case on Thursday. It is unclear when it will issue a ruling.

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