All Israel

Can a Jerusalem church building solve the deepening Jewish Agency crisis in Russia?

Herzog called Putin in an attempt to halt Moscow’s crackdown on the Jewish Agency and keep its operations in the country going

Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem's Old City (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday amid strained relations between the two countries over a crisis that pertains to the Jewish Agency’s activities in Russia. 

The phone call between the two presidents was “frank and honest,” said Herzog’s office in a statement. 

“The presidents discussed Israeli-Russian bilateral relations, including the challenges of the Jewish people in the diaspora. In this context, President Herzog elaborated on the issue of the activities of the Jewish Agency in Russia,” said the readout of the call. 

Last month, the Russian Justice Ministry ordered the Jewish Agency to end its Russian operations. The agency is the primary body that organizes aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel. Moscow alleged that the agency had violated Russian law by collecting information on Russian citizens and transferring the data. The next court hearing is expected to take place on Aug. 19.

Herzog initiated the phone call with Putin at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and in coordination with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Herzog, who served as the Jewish Agency chairman prior to becoming president, is carrying out Israel’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Russia, while the prime minister seems to be taking a back seat. 

In his previous role as foreign minister, under former Prime Minister Natali Bennett, Lapid was outspoken in his criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, becoming Israel’s first lawmaker to refer to them as “war crimes.” Lapid also pushed for holding a vote to condemn Russia at the United Nations. 

Putin did not call to congratulate Lapid last month when he assumed the premiership of the transition government in Israel. In addition, Israel’s Channel 12 quoted Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov as saying in private that “Yair Lapid as prime minister could create problems for Israeli-Russian relations.”

While Herzog and Putin “agreed to remain in contact,” statements from their offices did not specify the ways they are trying to mitigate the crisis moving forward. However, according to Israeli media outlets, Russia presented Israel with a clear demand to restore its government’s ownership rights of the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem. 

Prior to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise of the church to Putin in 2019 – in exchange for the release of then 29-year-old Israeli citizen Naama Issachar from a Moscow prison – the church belonged to the Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land (OPS).

The OPS appealed against the relegation of the property to Russia, and an Israeli court recently ruled that the decision lies in the hands of the Israeli government.

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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