Israel’s then foreign minister Yair Lapid and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, on 9 September 2021. (Photo credit: Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned on 24 July that if court proceedings finalize the closure of the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, bilateral relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv will be harmed.
“Relations with Russia are important to Israel,” said the Israeli premier, “[but] the Jewish community in Russia is large and important and comes up in every diplomatic discussion with the government in Moscow.”
The Russian Ministry of Justice ordered the dissolution of the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, according to media reports on 21 July.
The Jewish Agency for Israel is an international organization that operates as a non-profit in order to promote Jewish immigration to Israel.
Lapid also held a meeting with several Israeli officials and representatives of the Jewish Agency on 24 July to discuss the best way to respond to such a measure.
A participant in the meeting stated that actions by Russia in Ukraine constitute “an attack on the heart of the essence of the state of Israel. There is real fear that the Aliyah [Jewish immigration] from Russia will stop, and therefore the Israeli government is investing as much time and effort as needed.”
The order for closure came after a lawsuit was made against the Jewish Agency branch in Moscow’s Basmanny District Court.
According to reports, violations of Russian law by the Jewish Agency have not yet been publicly specified.
However, the justice ministry claims that the agency was illegally gathering information about Russian citizens.
The ministry filed the case on 15 July and another hearing has been set for 28 July.
If the final court decision decides to shut down the Jewish Agency, then Tel Aviv plans several retaliatory diplomatic measures.
This may include denying Russia its right to control an ancient Orthodox church in Jerusalem, over which Moscow has been pressuring the Israeli government.
The church, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is a major asset of the Russian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, located in the heart of the Christian Quarter.
Israeli media reported that this move may potentially be “political punishment” for positions taken by Tel Aviv in support of Ukraine, specifically in relation to statements of public officials or indirect military support for the Ukrainian army.
While Israel has not directly supported the Ukrainian army with weapons, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel confirmed the presence of Israeli citizens among the foreign legion of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Russia has criticized the presence of Israelis among the Ukrainian army and expressed its concerns over Israelis fighting alongside neo-Nazi Ukrainian battalions.
Current Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid has, in turn, also criticized the Russian war in Ukraine and accused Moscow of alleged war crimes.
The Israeli ambassador to Russia, Alex Ben Zvi, was summoned by the Russian foreign ministry on 18 April to answer questions about “anti-Russia remarks” made by Lapid.
Moscow stated that Israel’s focus on the Ukrainian conflict was made to distract the world from the crisis in Palestine.
“There was a poorly camouflaged attempt to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine to distract the international community’s attention from one of the oldest unsettled conflicts – the Palestinian-Israeli one,” the Russian foreign ministry stated, according to the Russian news agency, TASS.
Israeli interim PM Lapid said he would send a delegation of ministerial representatives as well as some Israeli ministers to Russia in order to prevent the closure of the Jewish Agency and to cool down diplomatic tensions.
“The Jewish community in Russia is deeply connected with Israel,” Lapid said in a statement. “Its importance arises in every diplomatic discussion with the Russian leadership. We will continue to act through diplomatic channels so that the important activity of the Jewish Agency does not cease.”
The Russian ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, said on 21 April that his country would consider retaliatory measures against Tel Aviv if reports of Israeli military aid to Ukraine are confirmed.
A number of Israeli officials are concerned that if Tel Aviv does not strike the right diplomatic balance between its support for Kiev and its friendly diplomatic relations with Moscow, then Russia may be induced to increase its protection of Syria against recurring acts of Israeli aggression on Syrian soil.