Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Russia claims the Jewish Agency is breaking Russian laws. Moscow threatens to close down Agency activities there. The Lapid government initially reacted in panic. Crisis?
A. Israelis who have known and worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin for years--since well before he became president--will tell you that the key to working with Russia is precisely knowing and working with Putin. They will add that Putin is at heart an admirer of Israel and the Jewish people (alongside Germany). Yet the threat to close down the Jewish Agency in Russia is understood as a threat from Putin.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid reacted to the Russian threat by convening a special Cabinet meeting in late July and declaring that “closing the Jewish Agency offices will be seen as a serious incident that affects our [Israel-Russia] relations.”
Q. Israel threatening Russia?
A. As Lapid’s panicky reaction appeared to demonstrate, he has no clear grasp of the Israel-Russia relationship and no personal rapport with Putin. As soon as wiser heads prevailed in Jerusalem, the matter of the Jewish Agency was placed in the more practiced diplomatic hands of President Herzog, a former head of the Jewish Agency who for this purpose has better international contacts (e.g., Turkey’s Erdogan) than Lapid. A legal delegation was dispatched to Moscow to discuss Russia’s complaint, and Jerusalem’s bluster ceased.
Incidentally, unusual Russian criticism of Acting Prime Minister Lapid, who has never met Putin, was first reportedly voiced on July 21, before the Jewish Agency issue surfaced.
Q. What, then, is really at issue here?
A. The Jewish Agency advertises that it “brings Jews to Israel and Israel to Jews around the world”. It is both a vital institution in Israel-Diaspora relations, and an entrenched, fossilized bureaucracy. In Russia, it operates through a Russian NGO that maintains offices in a dozen cities and serves as the primary vehicle for arranging immigration to Israel of Russian Jews and their families.
Since encouraging Jews to emigrate from their home countries can be understood in some of those countries as a sensitive issue, it is not surprising that the Agency runs afoul of local laws now and then. Yet in the case of Russia, there is a widespread assumption that at the end of the day it is Putin, not the Russian legal system, that is really calling the shots and that Putin has fixed upon the Jewish Agency to teach Israel a lesson.
Hence it is not surprising that the Jewish Agency affair has awakened a debate in Israel. Many are asking, “what does Putin really want?” The answers all seem slightly or largely speculative; some seemingly verge on the conspiratorial. All say something about Israel, Russia and their relationship.
Thus, some Israeli observers believe Putin wants to put a stop to a Jewish Agency-engineered brain drain from Russia. Here is veteran political columnist Shimon Shiffer on July 31 in Yediot Aharonot: “Putin likes to tell Israelis that Russia fulfilled its part of a bargain with Israel by letting a million Jews emigrate there. ‘We made you a leading world technological power. . . . We paid a huge price. You dried up the sources of our intellectual power. [At least] behave accordingly [i.e., with respect toward us].’”
Others believe Putin a) is angry at Israel for tilting toward Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine war; b) that he wants to close down the activities in Syria of the Israel Air Force; or c) that he seeks to take possession of key Eastern Orthodox (Pravoslav) Church real estate in Jerusalem. Then too, perhaps this is d) Putin’s way of reminding Israel in the aftermath of the Biden visit “festival” that Russia is a Middle East superpower not to be taken for granted. Or perhaps, all of the above.
Q. In looking at the internal Israeli discussion, let’s start with the obvious issue, Russian Jewish immigration to Israel. . .
A. Former National Security Adviser and IDF general Giora Eiland opined last week that “maintaining the activity of the Jewish Agency in Russia is not an Israeli national interest” that warrants endangering the Israel-Russia relationship. There are lots of other vehicles for maintaining a dialogue with Russia’s remaining 600,000 or so Jews. In sharp contrast, former member of Knesset Ksenia Svetlova, a Middle East expert, believes that without the Jewish Agency many of Russia’s Jews will have nowhere to turn to for links to Judaism and Israel, with demographic-strategic consequences for Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Somewhere in between is Yedidia Stern, who heads the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute. Israel, Stern reminds us, is legally bound by its Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, to come to the aid of Jews in trouble anywhere. Yet “the law does not obligate Israel to engage in arm-wrestling with Putin. . . . Assuming aggressive Israeli action will help maintain the Jewish Agency’s status in Russia, is this a good idea if . . . Russia responds by selling advanced ground-to-air missiles to Syria?”
Q. This brings us directly to the most immediate strategic issue. Is Russia threatening to inhibit Israel Air Force freedom of action in the skies over Syria? Is this as crucial as it sounds?
A. It certainly seemed that way to Prime Minister Netanyahu in September 2015, when the Russian military first arrived in war-torn Syria and Netanyahu hurried to Sochi to meet Putin and clear the way for Israel to continue to operate in Syrian skies against Iran without Russian interference. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, too, hastened in 2021 to offer Putin Israel’s good offices for resolving the Ukraine war as a hedge against possible friction in the Syrian arena.
Broadly speaking, Israel’s strategic community believes that interdicting Iranian personnel and ordnance when they arrive in Syria is key to keeping Iran at bay--far from Israel’s borders. For that to happen, Israel requires that Russian forces in Syria stand down.
Yet not all Israeli strategic experts concur. Here is Ofer Shelah, who as a member of Knesset for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party specialized in Israel’s strategic challenges: “The truth is that the [Israeli] bombing in Syria never bothered the Russians and even corresponded with some Russian interests. . . . More worrisome, many Israeli security professionals have long doubted the efficacy of many of Israel’s power plays in Syria and Iran and the absence of a strategy behind them.”
Q. Moving on: are Russian Orthodox Church property claims in Jerusalem really an issue?
A. That depends whom you ask. One of Putin’s key pillars of support inside Russia is the Orthodox Christian establishment, which wants to recover control over a few long-lost properties in Jerusalem. Netanyahu promised one to Putin a few years ago in return for the release of an Israeli woman apprehended in transit at a Moscow airport with a small quantity of medical cannabis--an incident that should sound familiar to American fans of women’s basketball. Israel’s courts have since balked at the transfer of ownership.
As anyone involved with Jerusalem’s church politics will tell you, the issue of which denomination--the Vatican, the Russian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox, the Egyptian Coptic, the Ethiopian Coptic, etc.--claims, or owns, which church or part of a church in the city is about as Byzantine as you can get. Putin, for his part, keeps insisting that Israel fulfill Netanyahu’s commitment.
Q. Finally, where do Israel’s politics come into the picture? Could Putin be interfering in Israel’s elections and expressing a preference (to hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israelis) for Netanyahu over Lapid or Gantz?
In the absence of a solid personal relationship, Putin is not beholden to Lapid. It is hard to dispute the contention that Netanyahu and even Bennett did better by Putin. Netanyahu, perhaps encouraged by Putin and seeking attractive election issues, has attacked Lapid for dealing clumsily with the Jewish Agency issue. Lapid for his part has responded by attacking Netanyahu for demonstratively refusing to attend security briefings with him--a serious breach of protocol designed to express delegitimization of any Israeli PM who isn’t Netanyahu--where he would be brought up to date on the Russia front and persuaded there is no crisis.
Q. Bottom line?
A. It should be a top priority for the government of Israel to quietly but firmly resolve the Jewish Agency issue with Moscow. More to the point, the reasons for Putin’s discontent should quickly be clarified. Israel may be able to muster alternatives to Agency activities, but this is not an issue to mess with right now.
With all due respect to Israel’s relations with the US and the warm relationship with President Biden demonstrated recently during his visit, it is Russia that is liable to catalyze threats to Israel from its northern border.