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Israeli delegation finally allowed to fly to Russia to discuss Jewish Agency crisis

Russians reportedly held up visas for Israeli envoys after Moscow filed court petition to close quasi-governmental body that facilitates immigration to Israel; hearing on Thursday

View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An Israeli delegation on Wednesday received permission to travel to Moscow to meet with authorities there amid a major diplomatic spat over Russia’s efforts to limit the operations of the Jewish Agency in the country.

The delegation will include representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Absorption Ministry who will try to convince Russia to allow the agency to continue its work in the country.

The Israeli delegation had been set to leave on Sunday, but authorities in Moscow reportedly withheld approval. The group finally received visas on Wednesday.

The delegation’s trip was going ahead “on instructions from Prime Minister Yair Lapid and in coordination with the authorities in Russia,” according to an Israeli government statement.

Last week, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a petition at the district court in Moscow seeking to close the quasi-governmental agency, which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel. The court is expected to hold a hearing on the case on Thursday.

Israel has been trying to tamp down tensions with Russia, a major power and key player in the Middle East, whose motives for threatening the Jewish Agency remain unclear.

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)

On Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog said Israel was trying to keep a low profile in the dispute.

Speaking at a conference held by Israel’s Channel 13 news, Herzog, who headed the Jewish Agency in 2018-2021, said that while the issue was “close to his heart,” he considered it better to keep public mention of it to a minimum.

“Some things are better left unsaid,” the president said.

Russia, meanwhile, was sending mixed messages, with the Kremlin calling the dispute a purely legal matter, while its Foreign Ministry accused Israel of longstanding “unconstructive” and “biased” behavior toward Moscow.

“The situation should not be politicized or projected onto the entirety of Russian-Israeli relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “There are issues from the point of view of complying with Russian law.”

However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday accused Israel of hostile behavior.

“Unfortunately, we heard completely unconstructive and, most importantly, biased rhetoric in the statements that Tel Aviv made in recent months,” she told the Soloviev Live TV channel, according to TASS, singling out Israeli statements supporting Ukraine.

She was apparently referencing Lapid, who warned Sunday that the issue could negatively affect ties between the two countries.

Jewish Ukrainians leave a hotel and are headed for the airport to board a plane of the Jewish Agency as they make their way to Israel, March 6, 2022 in Warsaw, Poland. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But in another sign that the sides were trying to turn down the heat, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed on Tuesday reports of Lapid and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanging greetings on July 5, without giving further details. The exchange of notes was most likely a formality upon Lapid’s assumption of the post of prime minister last month.

Some argue that Moscow’s actions against the Jewish Agency were a response to Lapid’s unequivocal, ongoing condemnations of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

In an interview with The Times of Israel on Monday, Moscow-born Israeli politician, journalist and analyst Ksenia Svetlova noted that Russia started threatening the Jewish Agency with sanctions at roughly the same time Lapid took over as premier.

“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,” said Svetlova, who is a contributor to Times of Israel Hebrew sister site Zman Yisrael.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel sought to walk a tightrope by supporting Kyiv but not antagonizing Moscow. Russia controls Syria’s airspace, where Israel carries out airstrikes against its enemies, mainly Iran and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Russia has also appeared to have grown closer to Iran in recent months, with the Iranians supplying Russia with armed drones for the war.

Last month, Russian authorities told the Jewish Agency that its offices could face sanctions over alleged infringements of local laws. Officials in the organization initially believed this to be a low-level issue that could be resolved with negotiations and compromise.

However, as Moscow continued to escalate the situation, the Jewish Agency reached out to the Foreign Ministry to intervene on its behalf.

Last week, Russian authorities formally filed 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.

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.

The dispute has also become fodder in Israeli politics, with opposition leader Netanyahu on Tuesday accusing Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, his political rivals, of mismanaging Israel’s relationship with Russia.

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