Russian roulette and the fight to be next PM: Sniping and Jewish Agency crisis

There was an interesting divergence of explanations on offer this week as to why the Russians are suddenly trying to shut down the Agency


Israeli president Isaac Herzog at a conference at the President's House to mark Awareness Day for the Disappearance of Yemeni Children on June 21, 2022 in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

July 28, 2022 11:42

After half a year living in a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, American Ambassador Tom Nides finally moved into his new residence in Jerusalem in May.

Back in the last days of the Trump administration, former US Ambassador David Friedman sold the old residence in Herzliya to the late casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Mr Friedman, who had orchestrated the historic decision by Donald Trump to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv, wanted to ensure that his successor would live in Jerusalem and succeeded in causing a real-estate headache for the embassy.

The new residence is a far cry from the massive villa on a clifftop overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s a rather ugly, nondescript and brand-new small residential block in the German Colony, with a tiny garden capable of holding at best a couple of dozen guests.

But Mr Nides, an irrepressible Minnesotan, set about hosting immediately. On one of the first nights he had Israel’s three power-couples over for dinner. President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and alternate-prime minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and their spouses.

The coalition was holding on by a thread but it was a cheerful evening. Mr Nides congratulated the government’s two leaders that they had achieved a tremendous thing by putting together the most unlikely of coalitions.

President Joe Biden was about to come to Israel and the ambassador wanted to impress upon them that the administration was invested in their government. By the time Mr Biden arrived, Messrs Bennett and Lapid had already switched places. Two months after that peaceful night in Jerusalem, the three main guests remain on cordial terms but they, or rather their teams, are also briefing against each other.

The tension between Mr Lapid and his predecessor is easier to understand. Those close to Mr Bennett have heard from him in recent weeks that while he has no regrets over handing over the reins, per their coalition agreement, he is not convinced that Mr Lapid has sufficient focus both to continue Israel’s multi-level campaign against Iran and to fight an election campaign in the hope of preventing Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the prime minister’s office.

From Mr Lapid’s direction, on the other hand, there’s been grumbling about how Mr Bennett is having trouble getting accustomed to his new status and has been trying to insert himself into top-level meetings where he no longer needs to be. In other words, a not untypical state of affairs between serving and former premiers.

The sniping between the prime minister and the president is a lot more nuanced and is part of the latest saga which has been gripping Israel over the past week – the Russian threat to close down the Jewish Agency’s operations in Israel.

Russian motives

Israel is a country blessed with a great number of Kremlinologists thanks to its large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the many Israelis who have worked in Russia and the frequent meetings over the past two decades between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the changing cast of Israel’s leadership.

As a result, there was an interesting divergence of explanations on offer this week as to why the Russians are suddenly trying to shut down the Jewish Agency, 33 years after it was allowed to operate there freely at the end of the Soviet era.

These range from those who insist that it’s “just a technical issue of an infringement of Russian data-collection laws which could have been solved easily if it hadn’t leaked to the media,” and others who believe that “Putin is trying to interfere in Israel’s elections.”

On Monday evening, the prime minister and president met to discuss the crisis and said in a joint statement that they were working together to solve the matter through diplomatic channels.

The display of unity was slightly marred by the different theories coming from their inner circles. A very senior official in the president’s office said , “It is clear that the Russians are concerned Israel may be about to shift more forcefully to the Ukrainian side.

That’s why they’re using the Jewish Agency to make a point.” The inference was clear. Since nothing has changed in recent months in Israel’s policy on Ukraine, what has got the Russians worried is the ascendancy of Mr Lapid, who back in the early months of the Russian invasion, as foreign minister, led the more critical line, even condemning Russian “war crimes” in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. According to word out of the president’s office, they are acting to preempt Mr Lapid continuing this line now he’s prime minister.

Sources close to Mr Lapid, however, are insistent that he has no such plans and that the Russians are perfectly aware of that. They explain that the trouble surrounding the Jewish Agency is long ongoing and has nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine; in fact it began as far back as two years ago.

If only the Agency’s leadership had notified the government at the time, things could have been sorted out quickly and quietly. They’re not naming any names, but two years ago the man who served as Jewish Agency chairman just happened to be... President Herzog.

Who’s next?

Could there be other reasons, besides differing interpretations of the Kremlin’s motives, for this tension between Israel’s highest offices?

In just over three months, on the day after the election, the president will have to perform his most important role.

After holding consultations with the parties represented in the new Knesset, Mr Herzog will have to hand one of the Knesset members the mandate to form Israel’s next government. The law gives the president broad discretion on this matter but by tradition whoever receives most endorsements from Knesset members to serve as next prime minister gets the first shot at forming a coalition.

This will almost certainly be Mr Netanyahu, who is expected to have the support of the right-wing and religious parties. But assuming most of the current polls are right, and the Netanyahu bloc will lack a majority of 61 Knesset members, once his allotted time is over, the president will then have to hand over the mandate to someone else.

Tradition is less clear over how the president should decide upon whom to confer the second mandate. Mr Lapid will probably have the second-highest number of endorsements but at this point the president could choose to hand the mandate to the politician he believes has the best chance of a forming a government.

There will be a valid argument that despite having fewer endorsements than Mr Lapid, that would actually be Benny Gantz, Defence Minister and leader of the centre-right Blue and White-New Hope alliance. Mr Gantz has much better ties with the ultra-Orthodox parties who are currently part of the Netanyahu bloc but could perhaps be persuaded to shift their alliance in order to avoid yet another election.

While on the surface they have a good relationship, there remains some bad blood between the president and the prime minister from the 2015 election.

Back then, Mr Herzog was Labour leader and according to the polls, running a close race with Mr Netanyahu. He believes to this day, and with some justification, that if it were not for Mr Lapid, many of the centrist Yesh Atid supporters would have voted Labour, which would then have become the largest party, enabling him to become prime minister.

In politics, revenge is a dish best eaten cold and seven years later, Mr Herzog may have his chance to exact retribution.

July 28, 2022 11:42

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