Israel gears up to fight, as Russia puts screws to the Jewish Agency for unclear reasons

After initially believing Russia’s moves against the Jewish Agency to be a relatively minor spat, Israeli officials now view them as the makings of a potentially major diplomatic rift, and the Jewish Agency is preparing accordingly, a senior official in the organization said Sunday.

Moscow’s reasons for attacking the quasi-governmental organization remain unclear, as Russian officials have yet to indicate what — if any — steps Israel could take that would prompt them to call off its threats to shut down the group, which is tasked with facilitating and encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel.

Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned Russia that closing the Jewish Agency there would negatively affect ties between the two countries. He has reportedly tasked the Foreign Ministry with drawing up specific courses of action that Israel could take, should Russia go through with its stated plans to shut down the organization’s operations, including recalling the Israeli ambassador to Moscow, more bellicose public statements against Russia, and stepping up Israeli support for Ukraine.

Last month, Russian authorities told the Jewish Agency that its offices could face sanctions over alleged violations of local laws. Officials in the organization initially believed this to be a low-level issue that could be resolved with negotiations and compromise.

However, as Moscow continued to escalate the situation, the Jewish Agency reached out to the Foreign Ministry to intervene on its behalf. The Israeli ambassador to Russia spoke about the matter with the Russian deputy foreign minister earlier this month.

“We tried to keep things low-key and sort it out by exchanging letters with lawyers and trying to reach a compromise,” a Jewish Agency official told The Times of Israel on Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue . “Now that they took it to court, it is clear that they are not looking for compromise or negotiations. It is clear that this is a political move.”

This is not really about some legal disagreements or technical procedure that was breached or even just small-time attempt to intimidate the Jewish Agency because they are antisemitic or oppose immigration or something

The Russian Justice Ministry filed an appeal with a Moscow district court last week, ordering the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency offices in the country.

Shortly after the court filing, Lapid announced the formation of a legal-diplomatic task force that would travel to Moscow this week to fight on the Jewish Agency’s behalf.

This delegation met on Sunday, after which Lapid issued a clear statement not only in support of the Jewish Agency and Russia’s Jewish population, but threatening Russia with diplomatic repercussions if the organization is indeed shut down.

“Closing the Jewish Agency’s offices would be a serious event, which will have consequences on [Israeli-Russian] ties,” the statement read.

According to the official from the Jewish Agency, which had multiple representatives at Sunday’s meeting, there is a clear understanding that, while the issue is far greater than the specific legal claims Russia is making about the organization — pertaining to how it stores data about prospective immigrants — for now, Israel must treat these allegations seriously.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid holds a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. (Marc Israel Sellem/ POOL)

“This is not really about some legal disagreements or technical procedure that was breached or even just a small-time attempt to intimidate the Jewish Agency because they are antisemitic or oppose immigration or something,” the official said. “This legal delegation is not going to solve anything, but we have to play the game. There will need to be political involvement.”

The delegation was due to leave for Moscow on Sunday and Monday, but its departure was instead pushed back indefinitely, until “it receives Russian approval for the talks,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

But the Jewish Agency official stressed that, while the delegation was made up of legitimate experts in Russian law, this was largely for show.

“We are playing the legal game, while also signaling that we are not fooled by this,” the official said.

Two major, as-yet-unanswered, questions are why Russia prompted this diplomatic fight over the Jewish Agency, and what it will ultimately take to resolve the situation.

In the past, Moscow has been far more overt in issuing demands in such situations. Take, for instance, the case of Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman who was detained in Russia after a small amount of marijuana was found in her luggage during a layover at Moscow airport.

Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court on December 19, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

In that incident, Russian officials quickly made it clear to Israel that Issachar would be released if Jerusalem turned over a Russian national, Aleksey Burkov, who had been detained in Israel and was due to be extradited to the United States for cyber crimes.

Israel ultimately did not go along with the Russian demand and indeed extradited Burkov. Issachar was instead pardoned after Israel gave control of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Alexander Courtyard to the Russian Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, although that move has since met some legal troubles.

“With Issachar, it was just the fate of one person. The Russians wanted the release of a Russian hacker. Then we threw in the Alexander Courtyard for good measure. It was clear what they were demanding,” the Jewish Agency official said.

“Here it is not just one person — it is much much bigger stakes — and they are not saying anything, they are not making any demands,” he said.

While some Israeli officials have indicated that Russia is acting in retaliation for Jerusalem’s ongoing support of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of the country earlier this year, Moscow has also regularly expressed discomfort and even opposition to Israel’s ongoing airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, a country with which Moscow has a deep alliance.

The Jewish Agency official said his organization also suspected that this may be the result of some “internal power struggle within Russia that has nothing to do with us.”

In addition to serving as an initial step in the process of immigrating to Israel, the Jewish Agency also maintains a number of programs inside Russia and serves as an important conduit between the country’s Jewish community and the wider Jewish world. Moscow’s moves against the organization have evoked memories of the plight of Soviet Jews, who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, barred from immigrating to Israel or freely practicing their faith.

Natan Sharansky on June 24, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The Jewish Agency does very important work in Russia, and I hope it will continue to do so. Nevertheless, it behooves us to remember that Israel knew how to fight for immigration even when the Jewish Agency and all Israeli diplomats were barred from Soviet Russia, just as it knew how to defend its security interests successfully, even when all the best Soviet weapons were delivered not to us but to our enemies,” the former head of the Jewish Agency and former Soviet Jewish leader Natan Sharansky wrote in a public Facebook post on Friday.

“I want to finish this post with a message to all of our Jewish brethren in Russia who are seriously considering immigrating to Israel: I urge you not to postpone the implementation of your plans,” he said.

For now, the organization is continuing its activities in Russia as normal, but it is also preparing for the day when it will have to dramatically alter how it works, the official said.

“We will operate as usual for as long as we can… and we are preparing ourselves for all possible scenarios,” he said.

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