By JOSEF FEDERMAN and ILAN BEN ZION
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is wrestling with how to deal with dozens of Russian Jewish oligarchs as Western nations tighten sanctions on businessmen linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A worried Israeli government has formed a high-level committee to see how the country can maintain its status as a haven for all Jews without breaching biting sanctions aimed at Putin’s inner circle.
Several dozen Jewish tycoons in Russia have reportedly acquired Israeli citizenship or residency in recent years. Many enjoy good working relationships with the Kremlin, and at least four – Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and Viktor Vekselberg – have been internationally sanctioned because of their alleged ties to Putin.
Israel, which has become a unlikely mediator between Ukraine and Russia, did not adhere to the sanctions imposed by the United States, Great Britain, the European Union and others. But as the war in Ukraine drags on and more names are added to the list, the pressure is mounting.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 television network over the weekend, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland called on Israel to join the group of countries that have sanctioned Russia.
“What we ask, among other things, is that all democracies in the world join us in the financial and export control sanctions that we have imposed on Putin,” she said. “You don’t want to become the last refuge for the dirty money that fuels Putin’s wars.”
Aaron David Miller, a now-retired veteran US diplomat, said on Twitter that Nuland’s comments were “the hardest blows in Israeli politics since the crisis began or in any politics in a very long time.”
Israel, founded as a haven for Jews following the Holocaust, automatically grants citizenship to anyone of Jewish descent. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, approximately 1 million Jews from Russia and other former Soviet republics have settled in Israel. In recent years, a growing number of tycoons from the former Soviet Union have joined them.
Some, like former energy tycoon Leonid Nevzlin, came after falling out with Putin. Others seemed to have done so to guard against unrest abroad.
Abramovich, for example, took Israeli citizenship in 2018 after her UK visa was not renewed, reportedly as part of efforts by British authorities to crack down on Putin’s associates after a former Russian spy was poisoned in England. Although he appears to be spending little time in the country, he has purchased some prime real estate, including a home in a trendy Tel Aviv neighborhood that was reportedly purchased from Wonder Woman actress husband Gal Gadot.
Some have kept a low-key public profile, while others have embraced their Jewish roots, emerging as major philanthropists for Jewish causes or investing in Israel’s high-flying tech sector.
Israeli media have reported on private jets belonging to oligarchs flying in and out of the country in recent days. Channel 12 said Sunday night that one of Abramovich’s planes had arrived, though it was unclear if he was on board.
As Israel weighs its punches, Jewish organizations are already taking a closer look at their relationship with the Russian oligarchs.
Last week, Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, said it was suspending a donation of tens of millions of dollars from Abramovich “in light of recent developments”. In Ukraine, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, built in the ravine where more than 30,000 Jews were massacred in just two days in 1941, said Ukrainian-born Fridman resigned from its advisory board in reason for the penalties.
Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the government had formed a special inter-ministerial committee to study the issue of sanctions. The fate of the oligarchs concerned is a central element of this mission.
In the meantime, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has already advised his colleagues to keep their distance from the oligarchs.
“You have to be very careful because these guys have connections and they can call you on the phone and ask you things,” Lapid told the Cabinet recently. “Don’t commit to anything because it could cause diplomatic damage. Say you can’t help them and give them the Foreign Office number.
His comments, first reported in Israeli media, were confirmed by officials who attended the meeting. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing closed-door Cabinet proceedings.
Israel, one of the few countries with good relations with Russia and Ukraine, may be able to insulate itself from international pressure as long as it continues to mediate between the warring parties. Joining the sanctions would risk drawing the ire of Russia and undermining Israel’s unique role.
Ksenia Svetlova, an international affairs expert and Russian-born former Israeli lawmaker, said Israel would refrain from taking a position for as long as possible.
“It depends on what kind of pressure they will exert against Israel,” she said. “Not voluntarily, certainly.”