Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has instructed the country’s Foreign Ministry to prepare a series of political measures against Russia to be implemented in the event it closes the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit organization that promotes immigration to Israel.
Russian authorities called for the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s operations in Russia last week, according to multiple news reports in Russia and Israel. Although Moscow gave no reason for shuttering the agency’s offices, officials have said it is possibly due to Israel’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to Interfax, a request was made by the Russian Ministry of Justice to the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, alleging “legal violations,” and scheduled a preliminary hearing.
“The court received an administrative lawsuit filed by the Moscow branch of the Russian Justice Ministry to shut down and remove from the Unified State Register of Legal Entities the autonomous nonprofit organization Jewish Agency for Israel ‘Sohnut,’ which provides support for relations with the Jewish community,” the court’s spokesperson Yekaterina Buravtsova told Interfax.
Israeli lawmakers met earlier this week to discuss the matter, during which some even suggested that Jerusalem should change its policy on the war altogether. Nevertheless, others stressed the approach should not only be “sticks” but also “carrots.”
At press time, an Israeli delegation was on its way to Moscow to try to intercede with Russian authorities in advance of the scheduled July 28 preliminary hearing, as tensions between the two countries appeared to intensify.
Lapid, who also serves as foreign minister, is expected to examine the series of possible political measures and make a decision in the coming days.
Israel will likely adopt a cautious approach, as Russia has the ability to limit the Israeli military’s freedom of action in Syria, and some even fear it could provide advanced missiles to Iran. Several years ago, Moscow and Tehran held advanced talks on the matter, from which Russia only withdrew due to pressure from Israel.
According to former Ambassador to Russia and Ukraine Zvi Magen, Jerusalem has several options for exerting pressure on Moscow.
“Israel can change its de facto neutral position regarding the war in Ukraine. Of course, this may have adverse consequences from the Russian side, but it is an option nevertheless,” he said. “In addition, Israel can join the Western sanctions on Russia, which it is not part of at the moment. The sanctions imposed on Moscow are not the result of a decision by the Security Council, but independent initiatives of the United States, the European Union and other countries, and as such are not binding for Israel.”
According to Magen, Israel should not be limited due to fears over its military freedom of action in Syria, as Russia is not looking to change the status quo on the matter.
“The complicated political and military [situation] that the Russians are in enables Israel to exert pressure on Moscow more freely,” he said, estimating that Moscow is unlikely to deliver on its promise to shut down the Jewish Agency offices in the country.
The Jewish Agency, which has operated in Russia since 1989, is a quasi-governmental international nonprofit organization working on strengthening ties between Jewish communities around the world and assisting in aliyah.
According to The Times of Israel, the Jewish Agency was sent a letter last month by the Russian Justice Ministry, which included demands that the organization was unable to agree to. The letter also threatened legal action if the agency did not agree to the terms, which is now being followed through with in the form of this preliminary hearing.
While it continues to operate normally in Russia for the time being and has tried to deal with the situation without drawing attention, it has also asked for the Israeli Foreign Ministry to intervene on its behalf.
“Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine,” Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai tweeted last week. “The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel’s stance on the war is deplorable and offensive. The Jews of Russia cannot be detached from their historical and emotional connection to the State of Israel.”
The same day, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a situation assessment with members of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and the National Security Council, according to a news release from the Prime Minister’s Office. The officials decided to send a joint delegation to Russia from the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as from the Foreign Affairs, and Justice and Aliyah and Integration ministries to help ensure the agency’s continued operation in Russia.
An inter-agency discussion on the topic has been scheduled for Sunday.
“The Jewish community in Russia is deeply connected with Israel. Its importance arises in every diplomatic discussion with the Russian leadership,” said Lapid. “We will continue to act through diplomatic channels so that the Jewish Agency’s important activity will not cease.”