"Yellow card" to Israel
On July 28, a trial began in Moscow on the case of the liquidation of the Russian representative office of the Jewish Agency "Sokhnut". The Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit, suspecting the Jewish organization of violating Russian law - presumably, in the illegal collection of personal data of Russians (Sohnut maintains a database containing information about those who have the right to repatriate to Israel). According to another popular version, the dissatisfaction of the authorities is caused by the fact that their activities allegedly contribute to the “brain drain” from the country. According to the Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, from February to June of this year, about 16,000 people came from Russia, and among them there are many representatives of the business and scientific communities.
Claims against the Sokhnut, which has been operating in the country since 1989, are another round of tension between Russia and Israel against the backdrop of events in Ukraine. This was preceded by the suspension of the transfer of ownership of the Alexander Compound in Jerusalem to Russia; scandalous statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry and personally by Sergei Lavrov about Hitler's "Jewish origins" , Israeli mercenaries in the Azov regiment and Israel's desire to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine to divert the attention of the international community from the "illegal occupation and creeping annexation of Palestinian territories"; preparation for the UN Security Council of a draft resolution condemning the Israeli Air Force attacks on facilities in Syria.
In Russia, the news about the possible closure of Sokhnut was perceived by many with alarm as the intention of the authorities to restrict the exit of citizens from the country and the readiness to enter into a confrontation with their only remaining partner from the democratic camp.
In Russia, the pressure on the Sokhnut was perceived as the intention of the authorities to restrict the exit of citizens from the country
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned that the closure of the Jewish Agency would have serious consequences for diplomatic relations between the countries, and instructed to prepare response steps in case it occurs. Israeli analysts, however, are not inclined to dramatize the situation. The Jewish Agency is part of the Zionist tradition, its presence in the country has long been given rather a symbolic meaning, and even if its activities are curtailed, the repatriation procedure will not become inaccessible to Russians. At this stage, the threat of closing the organization should be seen as a signal that Jerusalem should not distance itself from Moscow.
“This is a yellow card that Putin shows Israel to show dissatisfaction with its behavior. So far, this is just a warning,” Yossi Melman, a military-political columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, explains to The Insider. “If the claims against the Jewish Agency are purely legal, as the Russian authorities claim, then it may or may not be closed. They may well say that, from the point of view of the law, the problem has been solved, or they can close some of the offices, limit the activities of both Sokhnut and other Jewish organizations. There is a big playing field here. We should not forget that Putin's special attitude towards Israel has always been due to pragmatism, not sentimentality: he is important as one of the key players in the Middle East region.
"Sohnut" was chosen as a sore point for exerting political pressure
According to Zvi Magen, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, the Sokhnut was chosen as a sore point for political pressure, realizing that for Jerusalem the issue of repatriation is a matter of principle. Magen believes that eventually this situation "will be put on the brakes, the litigation will be dropped or postponed to the future."
Russia has no interest in escalating a conflict with Israel, because for it this would be a negative development of events. All this may be necessary for forcing the atmosphere, applying pressure, but not as a practical step.
Another The Insider interlocutor Anat Hochberg-Marom, an expert on international security and geopolitical crises, believes that the situation is more voluminous than it seems at first glance. It cannot be ruled out that it may be related to the Kremlin's interests in the Middle East and Putin's desire to show that the region as a whole and Israel in particular are of particular importance to him today. It is no coincidence that the “Sokhnut case” arose shortly after Vladimir Putin's trip to Iran.
Iran as a sanctions ally
Putin visited Tehran on July 19, three days after the end of Joe Biden's visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia - one of the main topics of which was the containment of the Iranian threat). There, Putin met with his colleagues in the "Astana Troika" (guarantor countries of the Syrian settlement) - Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as with Iran's spiritual leader Ali Khamenei.
Following the talks, Putin and Raisi agreed to expand bilateral cooperation. In confirmation of these plans, on the day of the summit, Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) signed a memorandum of understanding and concluded a $40 billion deal to develop eight Iranian oil and gas fields and build gas export pipelines.
Another area of cooperation could be the aviation industry. It was reported that Iran would carry out repairs and maintenance of Russian aircraft, as well as supply parts and equipment for them of its own production: the original Russian aircraft lost due to sanctions. However, Iran is hardly able to cover the needs of Russia: its own air fleet is outdated and in a deplorable state. As the deputy head of the national association of airlines said at the end of last year, more than half of the Iranian civil aircraft fleet - more than 170 aircraft - is not in operation due to a shortage of spare parts, in particular engines.
Iran is hardly able to cover the needs of Russia: its own air fleet is outdated
However, of greatest interest to the Kremlin is the Iranian experience of circumventing Western sanctions, as well as developments in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A week before the Tehran summit, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that, according to American intelligence, Iran is going to transfer several hundred UAVs to Russia, including reconnaissance and strike drones, as well as train Russian specialists to operate these devices. According to the satellite imagery presented by Sullivan, Russian delegations visited the Kashan airfield at least twice in June and July to familiarize themselves with the achievements of the Iranian military-industrial complex. First of all, we are talking about the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 models - long-range combat drones capable of carrying high-precision missiles.
It is assumed that Russia, which is experiencing an acute shortage of this type of weapon, can use them in combat operations in Ukraine. The Iranian authorities denied these reports, but later said they were ready to export military equipment to "friendly countries."
There is no evidence that a deal between Moscow and Tehran has already taken place, but in the current circumstances it would be quite logical, said Raz Zimt, an Iranist at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies. In recent years, Iran has notably succeeded in the production of drones. They are actively used by the allies of the Islamic Republic throughout the Middle East - Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Syria and Iraq - and Tehran can use the Ukrainian crisis to expand the geography of combat tests of its UAVs.
Tehran may use the Ukrainian crisis to expand the geography of combat tests of its UAVs
The only question is whether the Iranians have enough capacity to produce the amount of equipment Russia needs, and for how long they can provide these supplies, says Raz Zimt. It is known that Russia has shown interest in cooperation with the Turkish Baykar, the manufacturer of Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, which are in service with the Ukrainian army. However, in an interview with CNN, Baykar CEO Haluk Bayraktar said that his company will not supply drones to Moscow because it supports Ukraine in its struggle for independence.
Middle East Triangle
The rapprochement with Iran against the backdrop of the cooling of Russian-Israeli relations raised the question of whether it had an impact on the alignment of forces in the region and whether it posed a danger to Israel. Experts interviewed by The Insider do not yet see obvious reasons for concern, but admit that the situation may change.
“The top three threats to Israel from Iran are the nuclear program, long-range missiles and UAVs. In all these areas, the Iranians do not need Russian help, says Raz Zimt. “However, the Russians can supply Tehran with modern S-400 air defense systems, and this is already a problem.”
According to the expert, the key question in this context is whether the strengthening of ties with Tehran will lead to a change in the Kremlin's policy regarding Israel's activity on Syrian territory. So far, Russia has largely ignored Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. However, as Shai Har-Zvi, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichmann University (Herzliya), warns, worsening differences between countries could harm further coordination of their actions on the Syrian front.
The strategic partnership between Moscow and Tehran is hampered by traditional mutual distrust, rivalry for centers of influence in Central Asia and the Middle East, and intensified competition for energy markets, Har-Zvi notes. Thus, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia has increased its oil exports to China and India at prices well below market prices.
On the other hand, as a result of a new nuclear deal with Tehran, Iranian oil exports may increase. Moscow fears that this will lead to lower prices and reduced exports of Russian raw materials, which could help European countries get rid of energy dependence on Russia.
As a result of a new nuclear deal with Tehran, Iranian oil exports may increase, and this can help European countries get rid of energy dependence on Russia
Putin does not want Iran to become a nuclear power and be present in Syria, adds Haaretz military-political commentator Yossi Melman. If the Iranians leave, then Israel will stop striking. Then the Assad regime will be more stable and Putin and Assad will have one problem left - Erdogan.
The Russian president does not need a real conflict with Israel, which he sees as a tool to achieve his goals, says Anat Hochberg-Marom, an expert on geopolitical crises. Perhaps Putin assumes that he will still need Israel as an international mediator to help reduce tensions with Washington and even with Kyiv.
Being one of the few countries in the Western world that did not join the anti-Russian sanctions and refused military assistance to Ukraine, Israel nonetheless openly demonstrates support for Kyiv. Yair Lapid, who headed the transitional government in early July,condemned Russia's aggression and called the massacre of the inhabitants of Bucha a war crime. In March, Jerusalem supported two UN General Assembly resolutions against Russia, and in April, Israeli officials attended a US-sponsored conference in Ramstein, where representatives from more than 40 countries discussed Ukraine's defense capabilities. The Israelis set up a field hospital near Lviv and sent more than 100 tons of humanitarian supplies to Ukraine, including armored ambulances, water purification systems, medical equipment and protective equipment for rescue services and civilian organizations. Despite this, Ukrainian officials regularly reproach Jerusalem for "insufficiently unambiguous position."
Despite the assistance provided to Kyiv, Ukrainian officials regularly reproach Jerusalem for an “insufficiently unambiguous position”
The scenario in which Israel violates neutrality and starts supplying weapons to Ukraine is considered unlikely by The Insider's interlocutors.
According to Yossi Melman, the position of the Israeli leadership will depend on the results of the parliamentary elections scheduled for November 1 this year. If the right wins and "Putin's friend" Benjamin Netanyahu returns to the premiership, the country's policy may change in the opposite direction - for example, Israel may significantly reduce humanitarian aid to Kyiv. However, the liberal Yair Lapid, who speaks harshly against Moscow, is not ready for more decisive steps in support of Ukraine.
Further relations between the two countries will be largely determined by the situation on the Ukrainian front and the behavior of Moscow, Melman believes.
“If the war of attrition continues, there will be no significant changes: there will be new signals from the Kremlin, new loud statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry. In the event of significant successes of the Russian army, Putin may demand compensation from Israel for "bad behavior." Well, if Russia behaves quite radically, Israel can respond. Theoretically, if a nuclear agreement with Iran is not signed and Russia refuses to impose sanctions against it, although it will be obliged to do so, Israel may change its position regarding the war in Ukraine. However, such a development of the event does not seem real to me.
In the current situation, Jerusalem should continue its cautious and balanced policy, maintaining contacts with both the Kremlin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, local experts say. “Israel should not interfere in this war in any way,” says Anat Hochberg-Marom. “We can act as an honest intermediary, but not the world policeman – we do not have any resources and opportunities for this.”