A Russian decision to shut down an agency that processes the immigration of Jews to Israel would be a “serious event” impacting bilateral ties, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Sunday.
A Moscow court said last week that the Justice Ministry had requested the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency because of unspecified legal violations and set a hearing for July 28.
Some experts interpreted that as a warning shot from the Kremlin towards Lapid, who has taken a tougher rhetorical line over the Ukraine conflict than Israel’s former premier Naftali Bennett, who stepped aside on July 1.
Lapid told a meeting of senior officials Sunday that “closing the Jewish Agency offices would be a serious event that would affect relations,” a government statement said.
He also ordered that a “legal delegation be prepared to depart for Moscow as soon as the Russian approval for talks is received and to make every effort to exhaust the legal dialogue,” on top of diplomatic efforts to ease the dispute.
The Jewish Agency, established in 1929, played a key role in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
It began working in Russia in 1989, two years before the end of the Soviet Union, after which hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the USSR left for Israel.
More than a million Israeli citizens today are originally from the Soviet Union.
Closing the agency’s Russian branch would not stop Russian Jews from moving to Israel — only a full Russian border closure could achieve that — but it could slow down the process.
Immediately following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Lapid as foreign minister accused Russia of violating the “world order”, while Bennett stressed Israel’s strong relations with both sides, withheld direct criticism of the invasion and subsequently tried to play a role of mediator between Kyiv and Moscow.
Lapid has renewed his criticism of Russia since becoming prime minister but has still tried to walk a cautious line in order to preserve ties with Moscow, which are seen as crucial to preserving Israel’s ability to carry out air strikes in Syria where Russian forces are present.