Report: Israel fears major diplomatic crisis with Russia over Jewish Agency

Channel 13 says senior officials worry efforts to dissolve non-profit will quickly escalate; Lapid to hold another assessment Sunday, before delegation heads to Moscow

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)

Israeli officials fear Russia’s intention to shut down the Jewish Agency in the country could quickly develop into a major diplomatic incident, Channel 13 news has reported.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Office said Israel would send a delegation to Moscow next week to meet with Russian officials, after the country’s justice ministry filed an appeal with a Moscow district court calling for the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency’s operations in the country.

According to the Friday Channel 13 report, senior Israeli officials believe the case is a diplomatic issue and not a legal one, despite Russian claims. Rather, they assess it as a Russian response to Israel’s positions on its invasion of Ukraine.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a “situational assessment” with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council about the matter on Thursday, his office said. Lapid is expected to hold an additional meeting on Sunday before the delegation heads out.

Late last month, Russian authorities informed the Jewish Agency, which facilitates and encourages Jewish immigration to Israel, that they planned to take legal action against the quasi-governmental organization unless it made a number of difficult demands — which it did not intend to accede to.

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)

According to Channel 13, Russia issued Israel a letter saying that the agency systematically breaks privacy and data protection laws for Russian citizens who are candidates for immigration to Israel.

The agency paid fines it was given over the apparent breaches of law, and did not appeal, thus “proving” it indeed acted illegally, the letter said, according to the network. It also said the agency continued to commit the same offenses.

The network said the agency rejects claims it admitted to any serious wrongdoing and maintains it paid the fines because it viewed the issues raised as minor technical ones.

On Thursday, Russia shifted from words and warnings to practical steps, as the justice ministry filed its appeal to the Basmanny court in Moscow.

“The court received a lawsuit filed by the main department of the Ministry of Justice in Moscow requesting the dissolution of the… Jewish Agency,” the court said in a statement that was carried by the Russian outlet RIA.

Ekaterina Buravtsova, a spokeswoman for the court, was quoted by Russian agencies saying the request was made after legal violations, without providing further details, according to the Interfax news agency.

The preliminary hearing of the appeal is scheduled to be held on July 28.

File: A view of the Kremlin with Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The aggressive posturing by the Russian government is seen as highly unusual, coming in apparent retaliation for Israel’s stance on Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, as well as for Israel’s ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria, which Russia at times opposes.

Apparently seeking to downplay concerns, the Jewish Agency said in a statement that this was only a “preliminary hearing” and a “continuation of the legal process” that was already underway.

“As we have previously stated, we are not making any comment during the course of the legal proceedings,” the organization said.

The Jewish Agency has maintained throughout the Russian campaign against it that it is continuing to operate as normal in Russia for the time being.

The Jewish Agency, an unofficial arm of the Israeli government, is tasked with overseeing and encouraging immigration to Israel. People looking to immigrate to Israel must submit applications through the Jewish Agency. The organization also runs educational programs and a host of other activities.

To facilitate these efforts, the organization maintains offices in many countries and cities around the world, including Moscow. In recent years, tens of thousands of Russian citizens have immigrated to Israel, with roughly 10,000 arriving just since the Russian invasion began in late February.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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