The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel should prepare for a prolonged crisis. The Russians might want to delay or accelerate the legal process to exploit the elections period. The verdict will not constitute the final word. The government is advised to navigate the crisis behind the scenes: publicity might accelerate escalation.

Russia’s Ministry of Justice is seeking to end the activities of the Jewish Agency in Russia, likely a signal by the Kremlin to Jerusalem not to drift too far from Moscow as its conflict with the West has reached tensions not seen since the Cold War.

The Russian move emphasizes why Israel was required to take a cautious political course during the months of the war in Ukraine, and it must continue to adhere to it.

According to a Moscow court, the judge will discuss the matter on July 28.

The Russians might want to delay the legal process or accelerate it. The verdict will not constitute the final word – it could be appealed, and if the charges are abolished, it will not be a guarantee of not initiating future persecution. Had the Russians wanted to end the operations of the Jewish Agency in their country, it would have been declared a “foreign agent.”

In recent weeks, the Jewish Agency’s Israeli headquarters denied the reports that it was required to end its activities in Russia following an investigative audit conducted in May and June. It suggested a vague explanation, that there were ongoing talks and that the Jewish Agency is working to settle the issue with Russian authorities.

For the past decade, the activities of NGOs in Russia, particularly those associated with organizations abroad, have been under strict supervision by the security agencies for fear of political interference in its internal affairs. Many organizations and activists were required to identify as foreign agents promoting foreign-funded political activity. At the same time, the freedom of action of the opposition in Russia has been in retreat, and repressive measures against public protests increased.

The Ministry of Justice is directly subordinate to the President of the Russian Federation (and not to the prime minister). It is reasonable to assume that an audit or demand for cessation of activities would not have been carried out without the knowledge of the Kremlin or even a direct order. This legal procedure should be seen as a clear political message to Jerusalem.

Although the Jewish Agency is not an official government institution (it is even registered in Russia as a separate local legal entity), it is a semi-official organization. As such, it is a convenient target for pressure. Formally, the Basmanny district court deals with this issue as a Russian internal matter, and the State of Israel is not a party to the proceedings. This was similar to the Naama Issachar affair in 2019 when the Israeli was sentenced to 7 years in jail on drug charges and released later after being pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On July 14, Putin signed 100 new laws, including one that dramatically diluted the criteria for defining a “foreign agent” and another that significantly expanded the grounds for treason charges. However, Israeli and Jewish organizations in Russia have hitherto been mostly immune to the wave of NGO persecutions, thanks to the close ties between Moscow and Jerusalem and the image cultivated by the Russian president that “Putin is good for the Jews.”

To put things in context, the Kremlin is unhappy with the gradual distancing of Israel from Russia. Recently, the Russian ambassador to Israel has been quoted as saying that Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s entry into the prime minister’s office “creates difficulties” because of his harsh criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is no reason to believe the official denial of the ambassador’s statement, released soon afterward to clean up the damage.

In recent months, the Russian foreign ministry’s growing public criticism of Israel on the Syrian file, the Palestinian conflict, and the Christian property issue in Jerusalem demonstrates that the bilateral agenda is rife with tensions. Israel’s Western orientation and struggle against Iran, which Putin visited this week, are central issues of contention.

At the same time, Russia does not want a complete rupture with Israel, which has gone out of its way to maintain a political dialogue with Moscow and has avoided participating in Western sanctions.

The Russian-Iranian rapprochement is also worrisome but not as profound as some in the media portray it. It is not news that Putin’s toolbox in managing relations with Israel is based on gestures of goodwill and pressure. His extortion policy aimed at former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Naama Issachar affair overshadowed the entire fabric of political relations between Moscow and Jerusalem for four months. Putin took advantage of the upcoming March 2020 elections, like now when Israel is in election season.

The opening of the legal procedure in Basmanny district court, well-known for its harsh verdicts in cases dealing with opposition figures since the early 2000s, signals Moscow’s desire to forge a tool of continuous leverage over Israel. The courts in Russia are independent on paper only and will rule based on what they are instructed to do.

In recent days, the Israeli government issued a public warning to Moscow in case the Jewish Agency is expelled from Russia. While Putin is respectful of strength, he’s sensitive to being publicly bullied and might escalate the crisis so as not to appear weak.

Now that Israel’s determination to defend the Jewish Agency is clear, the government should seek a behind-the-scenes, non-public discussion with the Russians and be prepared for a prolonged crisis. High-level contacts are undesirable at the current stage, lest this is perceived as weakness and increases Russia’s bargaining power.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.