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Moscow continues to block arrival of Israeli delegation

Ex-Jewish Agency head, analyst back firm stance on Russia: ‘Not a time for weakness’

Amid growing crisis with Moscow, Natan Sharansky says Lapid saving Israel from global shame; former MK Ksenia Svetlova argues timing of spat ‘not a coincidence’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

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)
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)

Former head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky on Monday hailed Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s firm statements against the Russian war on Ukraine, in light of Moscow’s current moves toward shuttering the Jewish Agency’s offices in the country.

Lapid has come under criticism, mostly from the right, with political rivals claiming that Moscow’s actions against the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, were because of his unequivocal, ongoing condemnations of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Sharansky, a former Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, lauded Lapid’s criticism of Moscow, saying that beforehand Israel had been acting like a “court Jew” — referring to Jews who were close to European nobility, normally acting as financiers.

Lapid “brought Israel out of global shame,” Sharansky said, speaking in an on-camera interview with the Ynet news site. “The fears of speaking the truth about the Russian invasion reminded me of the status of court Jews, who needed to say ‘yes’ to the leader. Israel is not a ‘court country,’ certainly not for Russia.”

Moscow-born Israeli politician, journalist and analyst Ksenia Svetlova agreed that Russia’s move now against the Jewish Agency was likely a response to Lapid’s entrance to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“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 told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Svetlova, a former Knesset member of the center-left Zionist Union party and current nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, noted that Russia first threatened the Jewish Agency with sanctions at roughly the same time as Lapid took over as premier.

“The timing wasn’t a coincidence,” she said.

Last week, Russian authorities took this step further, formally filing 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.

Moscow has continued to aggravate the situation, so far refusing to issue visas to an Israeli legal delegation seeking to visit Russia 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.

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

She agreed with Sharansky that Lapid and Israel needed to take a firm stance with Russia in this matter.

“It’s time to be pragmatic, but at the same time, it is not the time to show weaknesses. You have here a superpower that wants to escalate things and they are not searching for a solution so far,” she said.

Russia’s ultimate aims with its efforts to shutter 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.

Israeli human rights activist and chair of the Babyn Yar Memorial Center, Natan Sharansky, in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Svetlova identified a number of possible options, including Israel’s opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This explanation is incomplete, however, given that, while the opposition has been consistent, it has never been particularly forceful. Israel refused to provide Ukraine with offensive weaponry, for example, and even barred countries with Israeli arms from selling them on to Kyiv.

Other potential reasons include the largely aerial war that Israel has been fighting against Iran and its proxies in Syria — a close ally of Russia — which has long rankled the Russian military.

Svetlova said a real estate dispute could also be contributing to Russia’s hardline approach. Moscow has for years been trying to get control of the so-called Alexander Court area of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel has at times indicated a willingness to permit this transfer and at times fought against it, including this year, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I don’t think this is the only purpose, but it is part of it,” she said.

Another possible angle may be Russian meddling in the upcoming Israeli election this fall.

“One goal could be political change in Israel,” she said, meaning Moscow could be trying to make Lapid look bad. “I don’t think anyone in the Kremlin would say no to Netanyahu being elected in November.”

Netanyahu and Putin have indeed long maintained a close relationship, with the former even using a massive photograph of the two of them for a billboard campaign for Israel’s September 2019 elections.

A giant election poster on the Likud party headquarters showing then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands, on July 28, 2019. The writing on the billboard reads ‘Netanyahu, in another league.’ (Tal Alovich)

Moscow has also accused the Jewish Agency of instigating a “brain drain” of Russia by enticing educated Russians to immigrate to Israel, also known as “making aliyah.”

Svetlova cast doubts on these claims. “Not everyone making aliyah from Russia is a Nobel Prize winner or high-tech millionaire,” she said.

The long-time chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, who fled Russia and officially lost his title following the invasion of Ukraine, added that the crackdown on the Jewish Agency was liable to have a boomerang effect and encourage more Russian Jewish to immigrate to Israel.

“What the Jewish Agency didn’t succeed in doing in terms of encouraging the Jewish community to immigrate, the Russian government has, with its policies over the past few months with the fighting in Ukraine,” Goldschmidt said in a statement Monday.

“If Russia wants to stop the brain drain and stop the exodus of its best sons, there is a simple way to do this: Immediately stop the war,” said Goldschmidt, who considers himself to be the Moscow chief rabbi in exile.

Svetlova, who is unflinchingly critical of Putin and Russia, said Moscow’s efforts against civil society are a mainstay of Russian authoritarianism.

Journalist and political analyst Ksenia Svetlova, formerly an MK from the Zionist Union party. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

“It was always clear that this was autocratic behavior. They have to reaffirm their influence and might,” she said.

Svetlova said a clear indication of Russia’s intentions will be seen in the hearing for the Jewish Agency later this week.

“The hearing could last for 45 minutes and then the court decides whatever it decides, or they could keep some kind of a chance that by November they will know who will be in charge in Israel and make it a longer story. Postpone the hearing, hold another hearing, and another hearing,” she said.

Svetlova noted that the Dasmany district court where the case was filed is referred to by Russian opposition figures as “the other end of the line” from Putin, referring to the fact that the Russian strongman can call the court and instruct it how to rule.

“This is not an independent judiciary,” she said.

However the crisis ends, Svetlova believes it could cause some measure of irreparable damage to Israeli-Russian ties.

“I do not foresee that the relations between Russia and Israel will be back on track soon. I think the differences will grow, about Syria and about Iraq, about Lebanon and so on. They are already talking more about the Palestinian issue. Israel and Russia are on a course for confrontation,” she said.

She said that while the step against the Jewish Agency is a dramatic one, it is “not the last straw, but it is one of the last straws.”

Svetlova said Moscow’s efforts against the Jewish Agency are a frightening omen for Jewish life in general in Russia, which has seen a resurgence in recent years, following the fall of the Soviet Union.

“It is very scary. I have people who are dear to me, friends there. It is really, really scary,” she said.

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