Israeli president attempts to calm tensions with Russia over Jewish Agency row

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman accuses Israel of ‘biased rhetoric’ on Ukraine


Israeli President Isaac Herzog meets with Colombian President Ivan Duque during his official visit to israel at the President's residence in Jerusalem,November 08, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** נשיא ישראל יצחק הרצוג נפגש עם נשיא קולומביה איוון דוקה במהלך ביקורו הרשמי בישראל בבית הנשיא בירושלים

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has been trying to calm tensions with Russia in an effort to leave room for diplomacy to resolve the dispute over Moscow’s move to close the Jewish Agency offices in the country.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the action against the agency – which assists Jewish immigration to Israel – was due to “legal issues”, adding that it should not be “politicised”.

Israel’s president, lsaac Herzog, who was a former president of the agency, said at a conference today: “I believe that the less we speak about it, the better we’ll be.”

The Russian government is using legal channels to shut the Jewish Agency’s offices in the country, a move that was condemned by Jerusalem last week as “deplorable and offensive”.

State media reported that Vladimir Putin’s government filed papers with the Basmanny district court, Moscow, to silence the Jerusalem-based organisation. The case will be heard on July 28.

Ekaterina Buravtsova, a spokesperson for the court in Moscow, told Interfax news agency that the request was made after “legal violations”. She did not provide further details.

Mr Peskov told reporters: “The situation should not be politicised or projected on to the entirety of Russian-Israeli relations. There are issues from the point of view of complying with Russian law.

“This situation should be treated very carefully,” he added.

In response to the comments, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in statement: “Israel-Russia relations are based on heritage, continuous connection and mutual interests. The Jewish community [in Russia] is central to these relations.”

Mr Lapid added that if “legal issues arise in relation to the important activity of the Jewish Agency in Russia, Israel, as always, is ready and willing to engage in dialogue about it while maintaining the important relations between the countries.”

Following his statement, however, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the Soloviev Live TV channel that Israel has engaged in “unconstructive” behaviour, singling out Israeli statements supporting Ukraine, the Times of Israel reported.

“Unfortunately, we heard completely unconstructive and, most importantly, biased rhetoric in the statements that Tel Aviv made in recent months.

“When we hear the country’s authorities say that some of Russia’s actions on the bilateral level may impact relations, we wonder if these very people think that their actions and statements of the past several months haven’t affected bilateral relations yet.”

At a conference today hosted by Israel’s Channel 13 news, President Herzog, who led the Jewish Agency from 2018 to 2021, described the issue as “close to his heart”.

He said he had been fully cooperating with Mr Lapid and would assist wherever he could.

“Some things are better left unsaid,” he said.

In comments seen as an attempt to ease tensions, Mr Herzog added: “Russia is an important country. There could be numerous different scenarios and explanations to why and how this happened… Let’s let the issue play out. The less we talk about it and the more we do, the better.”

There is speculation Moscow’s attacks on the Jewish Agency, which is headquartered in Jerusalem, could be in retaliation for Israel’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, or as a result of Russia’s closer ties with Iran. President Putin visited Tehran just last week.

Moscow has also expressed discomfort with Israel’s continued airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, with which Russia is closely aligned.

For the time being, the Jewish Agency is continuing as normal: “We will operate as usual for as long as we can,” an anonymous official told the Times of Israel.

“And we are preparing ourselves for all possible scenarios.”

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