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UK hails news 'Israel will support sanctions against Russia'

Israel focusing on closing loopholes, not imposing Russia sanctions, officials say

Lapid, ministries working to ensure country not used to bypass West; Jerusalem says it has no legal ability to declare sanctions — which it doesn’t want to do now in any case

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Riga, Latvia, on March 7, 2022. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Riga, Latvia, on March 7, 2022. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP)

Israel is not currently preparing sanctions on Moscow or Russian oligarchs, senior Israeli officials told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The clarifications came a day after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid declared in Slovakia that “Israel will not be a route to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western countries.”

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted after his remarks that she welcomes “news from @YairLapid that Israel will support sanctions against Russia.”

But that support does not mean the imposition of Israeli sanctions, the officials said. Instead, Lapid’s statements were in line with Israel’s stance to this point, in which it has sought to maintain open lines of communication with both Moscow and Kyiv while showing support for Western positions without necessarily joining them.

There is currently no legal structure in Israel that would allow for Israeli sanctions on assets and citizens of a state that is not defined by law as an enemy country. Such a law could theoretically be passed in the future.

However, private entities like banks could impose their own measures.

Moreover, Israel cannot bar Israeli citizens like Roman Abramovich from entering the country if there is no arrest warrant out for them, nor can it legally confiscate property in Israel.

Abramovich, who is under UK sanctions, was spotted at Ben Gurion Airport’s VIP terminal on Monday evening, leaving Israel for Russia after apparently spending less than 24 hours in the country. A Twitter account that tracks the movement of Abramovich’s six aircraft showed that a Gulfstream G650 belonging to Abramovich landed in Tel Aviv at around 9 p.m. local time Sunday, having taken off from Moscow.

Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, owner of England’s Chelsea Football Club, leaves the high court in London for a lunch break, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Instead, Jerusalem is focusing its efforts on ensuring that Russian individuals and banks don’t use Israel as a means to bypass Western sanctions.

“We are putting in place measures that will make sure this can’t be a place where people can basically find their way around,” said an senior official. “You won’t be able to cheat sanctions.”

The Foreign Ministry is working with the Bank of Israel, the Finance Ministry, the Energy Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the Airports Authority and others on any new measures that must be implemented.

“There are loopholes that you can try to exploit in Israel,” explained the official. “So it’s about closing those.”

One example is that Russians won’t be able to park their private jets in Israel indefinitely to keep them from being seized elsewhere.

Banks in Israel also understand quite clearly they are putting themselves at risk if they allow themselves to be used to circumvent sanctions.

After sitting with Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Ushpiz, Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nadav Eyal wrote over the weekend that “someone called the attention of Israel’s financial system to what has been written about them, and to the implications.”

Those implications, Eyal said, are enraging the US and inviting serious complications for any banks that think they are about to receive significant sums from sanctioned Russians.

“I think we’ll take it a step at a time,” said the senior official. “We’ll keep working with our partners.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visits the Siret crossing on Romania’s border with Ukraine, March 13, 2022. (Government Press Office)

At Monday’s joint press conference in Bratislava with his Slovakian counterpart Ivan Korcok, Lapid made his pledge about not allowing Israel to be a means of bypassing sanctions, and condemned Russia’s military offensive.

“Israel, like Slovakia, condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and calls for an end to the fighting,” he said. “There is no justification for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and there is no justification for attacks on a civilian population.”

Israel, Lapid vowed, “will do everything it can to assist mediation efforts, to stop the shooting and restore peace. We are working together with our greatest ally, the United States, and our European friends to prevent the continuation of this tragedy.”

In the wake of the Russian invasion, Western countries applied crushing sanctions on Russia, and the US and numerous other nations also leveled penalties on oligarchs.

Russia has been frozen out of international banking systems, causing the ruble to plummet in value. An increasing number of Western businesses are halting their operations in the country.

However, Israel has not joined Western sanctions against Russian oligarchs.

State Department Under Secretary for Public Affairs Victoria J. Nuland speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File)

US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said Friday that Israel should get onboard with Western sanctions, and bar Russian oligarchs. “You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars,” Nuland said.

On Friday, Channel 12 reported that 14 rented private jets have flown from Russia to Israel since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a possible indication that some wealthy Russians are looking at ways to slip around sanctions imposed to punish their country for the attack.

File: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2021(Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Israel’s good relations with both Ukraine and Russia has enabled it to take on the role of mediator between the two countries.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met personally with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month and had several phone conversations with him as well as with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Bennett spoke by phone with Zelensky on Saturday after Zelensky proposed that Jerusalem host ceasefire talks between Ukraine and Russia, and asserted that Israel could play an “important role” in the efforts to end the war.

Details of Israel’s mediation efforts have remained obscure. Saturday saw a top adviser to Zelensky deny a report that Israel had pushed the Ukrainian leader to accept an offer from Putin that would see Kyiv make significant concessions to end Russia’s invasion.

Israeli officials have indicated that Jerusalem has not taken a position, nor has it brought forward a proposal for a ceasefire. Rather, they assert that Bennett’s role has been clarifying the sides’ positions to each other and to other global players.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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