Russia’s move against Israel’s Jewish Agency is part of its regional game
In the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a major climate crisis, a stalled Iranian nuclear deal, and numerous other international developments, headlines around the world are reporting yet another crisis: the feud between Israel and Russia over Moscow’s move to close down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.
The headlines, however, are only partly right: there is indeed a crisis, but it has little to do with the Jewish Agency, the largest Jewish non-profit organisation in the world.
'Whenever they feel the need, Russian authorities are experts on pushing the Israeli-Jewish soft spots'
-Zvi Magen, INNS researcher
Despite the cryptic argument put forward by Russia, through both its justice ministry and media, the real crisis runs between the personal and the geopolitical, and it is just getting worse.
The Israeli delegation that was supposed to travel to Moscow last Saturday in an attempt to control the crisis did not depart, as Russia had not confirmed their visas.
Meanwhile, a preliminary hearing to assess the request filed by the Russian justice ministry for the agency’s liquidation is set for 28 July.
The Jewish Agency is a little-known, quasi-government organisation established in 1929 to assist Jews worldwide who want to settle in Israel.
The Moscow branch, which is actively involved in promoting Jewish immigration to Israel, was created in 1989. Since then, there have only been occasional complaints from local authorities about its conduct.
Over the years, about 400,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel from Russia and over one million from the former USSR. Over 17,000 have left since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with most fleeing Putin's regime, some fearing the return of a Cold War-style “iron curtain” might imprison them once again.
Beyond the brain drain
The high number of recent emigres - as well as their socio-economic profile - is certainly a factor in recent developments.
Unofficial Russian sources claim that via the Jewish Agency, Israel is encouraging the emigration of the people that Russia now needs most - those working in high-tech.
They believe the matter goes beyond a brain drain, portraying the situation as causing overt, if not intentional, damage to Russia at war.
The gain for Israel from a crisis that has drawn attention to this anachronistic institution might be to re-evaluate the need to have a Jewish Agency in 2022 when all its functions can easily be provided by the state, or other organisations.
The official reason cited by the Russian justice ministry for its unexpected move is quite obscure and relates to unspecified legal breaches committed by the Jewish Agency.
Unofficially, Russian authorities are said to suspect that the Jewish Agency is illegally gathering data on Russian citizens in the process of preparing for immigration, thus invading their privacy, and violating Russian information retention laws.
This is a strange position for a country famous for its total disdain for human rights to take, but not impossible.
Perhaps the Jewish Agency is doing just that. But if so, it has been doing it for the last 23 years. So, why the Russian scrutiny now?
The war of succession
The reasons are many, only vaguely connected to the Jewish Agency’s ongoing operations, and in reality the organisation has been carefully picked by the Kremlin to provide a pretext for them to apply pressure on Israel.
“Whenever they feel the need, Russian authorities are experts on pushing the Israeli-Jewish soft spots,” Zvi Magen, former military intelligence officer and Israeli ambassador to Russia, told Middle East Eye.
“Most recently it was the antisemitic claim by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Hitler was partly Jewish, now it’s the Zionist theme, embedded in the notion of Aliyah [the act of immigrating to Israel], the raison d’etre of the Jewish Agency.
“They know exactly what infuriates Israel.”
According to Magen, currently a researcher at the Institute for National Security, there is a direct line between this conceptually anti-Zionist theme and the recent meeting in Iran of three presidents.
For while US President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi was hosting his Russian and Turkish counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Tehran.
“In that context, negative focus on a Zionist Jewish Agency is a purposefully preconceived act,” Magen said.
But this is just one part of a broader effort by the Kremlin to intentionally damage what seemed to have been exceptionally good relations with Israel, along with weekly criticism of Israeli air raids in Syria - which are coordinated with Russia - and criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid by the Russian ambassador to Israel.
Russia’s interests have changed: they are under pressure from Iran, and a crisis with Israel serves them well.
Setting a small fire in the region might be a timely distraction from the war in Ukraine.
Additionally, perhaps the succession war in the Kremlin has already started and new interests have emerged.
All of the above have coincided with a distinct change in rhetoric.
“I don’t expect further escalation. It is not in Russia’s interest to change the status quo over Israeli military freedom of action in Syria, neither is it in their interest for Israel to join international sanctions on Russia,” Magen said.
“They just need to create an atmosphere of tension as part of their regional game.”
Magen believes that when that goal has been achieved, the Jewish Agency affair will fade into thin air with no consequences.
There are alternatives to the explanation offered by Magen, and other additional factors that might provide a better insight into what seems an oddly obscure situation.
There is certainly a huge difference between the official, legal justification put forward by the Russian justice ministry to explain their unexpected move against the Jewish Agency, and the other, less official, or behind-the-scenes explanations.
Not all of them are directly related to Israel, however.
Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Russia and an ardent nationalist, served as head of the Russian Jewish Congress between 2001 and 2004.
Quoted by Russian newspaper Vesty on 22 July, Satanovsky claimed that the Jewish Agency’s board of directors is formed and financed by American Jews, effectively allowing US agents to operate on Russian soil.
Referring to this claim, the editor of the Russian paper mentioned that the new head of the Jewish Agency is Doron Almog, a former major general in the Israeli army.
He left it at that - as an insinuation.
But in general, the Jewish Agency is now perceived - or presented as - the agent of a foreign country operating within Russia against vital Russian interests.
The most obvious sign of this is Lapid’s overt criticism of Russian brutality in Ukraine.
In April, Lapid, then Israel’s foreign minister, was the first to use the term “war crimes” in reference to the Russian massacre in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.
In contrast, the then Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was more cautious in his choice of words, while the usually outspoken head of the opposition and Putin’s close ally Benjamin Netanyahu chose to say absolutely nothing.
In general, Israel has been walking a political tightrope, trying to please Ukraine while not angering Russia. Attempts at both have failed miserably.
And there is, of course, the question of ego - Putin’s ego.
Satanovsky, among others, claims that Israel’s new prime minister has disrespected the Russian president.
For example, unlike all his predecessors, Lapid has not called Putin since he took office on 1 July.
Russian commentators mention this while insinuating a lack of gratitude from the leader of a country whose politicians have long had easier access to Putin than most world leaders.
But, in addition to the Ukraine war and the situation with Iran, another factor has to be taken into consideration: the upcoming Israeli elections on 1 November, which will be the fourth in two years.
The current political crisis between Israel and Russia emerged while Lapid was prime minister, and so might be used against him as the electoral campaign evolves. Especially because, in the 2020 elections, Netanyahu used his friendship with Putin as part of his campaign.
But while he may be held responsible for the crisis, Lapid might also gain support from parts of the Russian-speaking electorate who are grateful for his stance on Ukraine and angered by Netanyahu’s silence.
The undertones are already here, and the Kremlin will not shed tears.
Already in May, when the political crisis in Israel peaked, some Russian media were expecting Netanyahu’s comeback to provide a much more convenient partner for Putin.
What started in some Jewish Agency offices in Russia, might end up in the prime minister’s office in Israel.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.