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Israel in final push for deal with Russia as Jewish Agency trial opens

First hearing called for Friday in case against the quasi-governmental Israel-immigration group, which is planning for the possibility it will need to cease activities in Russia

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

A sign is seen outside the entrance of a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) office in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A sign is seen outside the entrance of a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) office in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Israeli government has been making last-ditch efforts to broker a deal with Moscow to avoid the closure of the Jewish Agency in the country, with top officials speaking to their Russian counterparts ahead of a first significant court hearing in the case on Friday, Israeli officials said.

In late June, Russia warned the Jewish Agency of its intentions to shutter the quasi-governmental organization, which encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, claiming that the group had fallen foul of the country’s laws by improperly keeping records of Russian citizens.

Last month, Russia’s justice ministry officially filed a petition to a Moscow district court on the matter. A first hearing was held on July 28, ending in roughly an hour with just a date set for the next hearing, August 19.

Though Israeli officials initially saw Russia’s moves against the Jewish Agency as a diplomatic maneuver aimed at putting pressure on Jerusalem, they now consider it part of a broader Russian crackdown on all civil society. In recent years, Moscow has forced a number of international organizations to shut down or severely curtail their operations in the country.

Ahead of the trial, Israeli government officials have been working to broker some kind of compromise with Russia that would allow the Jewish Agency to continue operating in the country to at least some extent, believing that once the Russian court system gets involved the matter will become far more complicated to resolve.

A source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that there was no way to avoid the court hearing on Friday but that Israel hoped that the tribunal would give the parties more time to reach an agreement before rendering a decision to halt or curtail the Jewish Agency’s activities.

However, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel did not know how the court was likely to rule on the matter. “We have to wait for tomorrow’s tribunal decision,” the source said on Thursday night.

Last Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog raised the issue directly with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and the two agreed to continue discussing the matter, their offices said.

According to the Walla news site, a day after Herzog’s call, Israel National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata also spoke about the issue with his Russian counterpart.

In addition, an Israeli government delegation of legal experts has been working with the Jewish Agency and speaking with Russian officials ahead of the trial.

The Jewish Agency, for its part, has been continuing with its preparations as normal, with its Russian attorneys readying for Friday’s court hearing.

Lawyer Andrei Grishayev, foreground left, and his colleagues prepare to attend a preliminary hearing of the Russian claim to liquidate the Jewish Agency for Israel, in the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 28, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“We’re not informed of the content of the talks between the PMO and their Russian counterparts,” a Jewish Agency official said on Wednesday.

The official said the Jewish Agency does not know how the trial will go, but anticipates that it will result in either the organization reducing its activities in Russia or being forced to shut down entirely.

“We’re examining all the options for a rainy day,” the Jewish Agency official told The Times of Israel last week, speaking on condition of anonymity. But he said the organization did not anticipate an imminent decision.

“The trial could go both ways: shutdown, or staying under tightened regulation,” he said. “But we’re certainly not going to leave if we can help it.”

The Jewish Agency maintains a staff of roughly 200 people across Russia, who hold cultural and religious activities for the country’s Jewish community, in addition to encouraging immigration to Israel.

For the past month and a half, the Jewish Agency has been exploring different ways of ensuring that it can continue to provide its services to the Russian Jewish community regardless of how the court rules.

“The idea is to maintain as much as we can all existing activities, and we’re examining all possible ways and platforms to do that should circumstances force us to leave Russia,” the official said.

The official refused to specify what potential configurations the organization was considering. They would likely include some mix of moving certain operations online, performing others through new organizations, funding local initiatives from afar, and stepping up services in neighboring countries.

The Russian government’s recent moves against the Jewish Agency have evoked memories of the Soviet Union’s own crackdowns on the organization and on Jewish communal life during the Cold War.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that Moscow shuttering the Jewish Agency would be “a grave event” with “consequences” for Russian-Israeli ties.

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