Israel moves to reduce Russia tensions: ‘The less we talk about it the better’

President Isaac Herzog indicated Tuesday that Israel was trying to keep a low profile in the growing dispute with Moscow over Russia’s moves toward limiting the operations of the Jewish Agency in the country.

Russia, meanwhile, was sending mixed messages, with the Kremlin calling the dispute a purely legal matter, while its Foreign Ministry accused Israel of longstanding “unconstructive” and “biased” behavior toward Moscow.

Speaking at a conference held by Israel’s Channel 13 news, Herzog, who headed the Jewish Agency in 2018-2021, said that while the issue was “close to his heart,” he considered it better to keep public mention of it to a minimum.

“I have been fully cooperating with Prime Minister Yair Lapid… I will assist wherever I can,” said Herzog, who met with Lapid on Monday evening.

“Some things are better left unsaid,” the president said.

“I believe that the less we talk about it, the better we’ll be. It will allow proper treatment of the issue,” he added.

Herzog continued: “Russia is an important country. There could be numerous different scenarios and explanations to why and how this happened… Let’s let the issue play out. The less we talk about it and the more we do, the better.”

Despite his largely ceremonial role, the current government has repeatedly made use of Herzog’s diplomacy skills.

Then-Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog helps a participant in a bar and bat mitzvah for deaf teens to unwrap his tefillin at the Nitzanim Synagogue in Jerusalem on May 20, 2019. (Nachshon Philipson)

The Kremlin said Tuesday that a move to close the agency in Russia was a purely legal matter.

“The situation should not be politicized or projected onto the entirety of Russian-Israeli relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“There are issues from the point of view of complying with Russian law,” he added. “This situation should be treated very carefully.”

Peskov did not provide further details.

However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday accused Israel of “unconstructive” behavior.

“Unfortunately, we heard completely unconstructive and, most importantly, biased rhetoric in the statements that Tel Aviv made in recent months,” she told the Soloviev Live TV channel, according to TASS, singling out Israeli statements supporting Ukraine.

“When we hear the country’s authorities say that some of Russia’s actions on the bilateral level may impact relations, we wonder if these very people think that their actions and statements of the past several months haven’t affected bilateral relations yet,” she said.

She was apparently referencing Lapid, who warned Sunday that the issue could negatively affect ties between the two countries.

But in another sign that the sides were trying to turn down the heat, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed on Tuesday reports of Lapid and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanging greetings on July 5, without giving further details.

The exchange of notes was most likely a formality upon Lapid’s assumption of the post of prime minister last month.

Left, Prime Minister Yair Lapid heads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 17, 2022. Right, Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP; Alexei Nikolsky , Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Some argue that Moscow’s actions against the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, were a response to his unequivocal, ongoing condemnations of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

In an interview with The Times of Israel on Monday, Moscow-born Israeli politician, journalist and analyst Ksenia Svetlova noted that Russia started threatening the Jewish Agency with sanctions at roughly the same time Lapid took over as premier.

“It didn’t happen under [former prime minister Naftali] Bennett. It didn’t happen under [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. There was something about this government,” Svetlova said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)

Last month, Russian authorities told the Jewish Agency that its offices could face sanctions over alleged infringements 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.

Last week, Russian authorities formally filed an appeal with a Moscow district court calling for the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency’s offices in Russia. The first hearing is scheduled for this Thursday.

Seeming to aggravate the situation, Moscow has so far refused to issue visas to an Israeli legal delegation seeking to visit the country this week ahead of the hearing. The team was due to travel on Sunday, but as of Monday night had yet to receive the proper credentials.

Russia’s ultimate aims with its efforts to shut down the Jewish Agency are not entirely clear. Unlike in the past, Moscow has not yet clearly identified what step Israel could take that would prompt it to reverse course or what specific Israeli actions instigated its antagonism.

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