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Russian threats to close Jewish Agency strike a nerve in Israel

By Hadas Gold, CNN

Israeli officials are trying to tamp down the diplomatic fracas that has erupted in recent weeks as Moscow has sought to dissolve the Jewish Agency’s Russian branch, an organization that helps Jews emigrate to Israel.

The Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency for Israel encourages and assists Jews, both logistically and financially, who may wish to one day emigrate to Israel. Under Israel’s “Law of Return,” anyone who is Jewish or can prove they have at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship.

Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian Jewish immigrants have moved to Israel since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, underscoring the particular role the organization can play at a time of war.

Russian news outlets have reported that authorities in Russia are accusing the agency of alleged infringements of local laws, including those related to data collection of Russian citizens. On Thursday, a Russian court will hold a hearing on the Russian government’s request to dissolve the organization’s operations in the country.

In its public statements, the Jerusalem Agency headquarters has only confirmed that a hearing will take place on Thursday, and that they will “not comment during the legal process.”

Initially the situation seemed to be approaching a diplomatic crisis point, as Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned earlier this week that the attempt to dissolve the Russian branch of the agency “would be a serious event that would affect relations” with Russia.

Under the directive of Lapid and in coordination with the authorities in Russia, an Israeli delegation will leave for Moscow Wednesday evening and hold meetings with the relevant parties in Russia, the Israeli government confirmed.

The Jerusalem Post reported in early July that the Jewish Agency had been under investigation by Russian officials for the past three years. Russian officials officially requested the agency cease its Russian operations just weeks after Lapid took over as caretaker Prime Minister from Naftali Bennett.

In his previous position of foreign minister, Lapid had been one of the most outspoken Israeli leaders in criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a Russian talk show on Tuesday that Israel had a “pro-Ukrainian” and “biased” stance with regards to Ukraine in recent months.

But after days of heightened tensions, a pair of statements from Lapid and Russian Presidential Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov are being seen as a way to bring the pressure down by focusing on the “legal” aspects.

“This situation should be treated very carefully,” Peskov said according to Russia’s state-run news agency TASS. “Indeed, there are questions to the Jewish Agency for Israel from the point of view of complying with Russia’s legislation and this situation should not be politicized or projected onto the entire set of Russian-Israeli ties,” he added.

Shortly after Peskov’s comments, Lapid’s spokesperson responded saying, “If there are legal issues that arise in relation to the important activity of the Jewish Agency in Russia, Israel is, as always, ready and prepared to engage in dialogue while maintaining the important relations between the countries.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who headed the Jewish Agency from 2018 to 2021, also seemed to be turning the dial down on Tuesday, telling a conference held by Israeli News Channel 13, “The less we talk about it and the more we do, the better.”

“Russia is an important country. There could be numerous different scenarios and explanations to why and how this happened,” he added.

On Tuesday, Lapid’s office made public an exchange of letters between Vladimir Putin and the new Israeli Prime Minister when the latter took up the role four weeks ago, in which the language is cordial.

In a letter sent through the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv, Putin congratulated Lapid on taking office, adding that “Russian-Israeli relations are traditionally friendly in nature.”

In response, Lapid said that relations between Russia and Israel are “deep rooted.”

Since the invasion, Israel has been performing a diplomatic balancing act in relations with Moscow.

Although it has officially condemned the invasion and regularly sends aid to Ukraine, Israel has yet to send the Ukrainians weapons, and has been criticized for not being more forceful in its criticism of Russia.

Regionally, however, Israel does not want to upset Russia when the Israeli air force is looking to hit targets in Syria. Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against its neighbor in recent years, mostly aimed at disrupting Iran’s supply of precision-guided missile technology to Hezbollah. Since Russia entered the Syrian war in 2015, Israel has needed Moscow’s tacit approval to carry out such attacks.

The digest

“We don’t know what is happening” with Iran’s nuclear program, UN watchdog says

The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, told CNN that the organization does not have any knowledge of whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.

  • Background: When it comes to Tehran’s uranium enrichment, “the issue is you have all of these activities that are continuing. And we do not have the visibility. We don’t know what is happening,” the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told CNN’s Sara Sidner in an interview Monday. In June, Iran began removing essentially all IAEA equipment installed under the Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including 27 cameras. A key tenet of the now defunct deal was that the IAEA could independently monitor Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Why it matters: The Biden White House has been working to revive the JCPOA agreement but US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told CNN last week that the window for a deal is “closing quite rapidly.” Grossi told CNN that he believes the space for an agreement “is narrowing.”

Turkey still expecting Sweden to extradite Kurds in exchange for NATO approval

Turkey is “still expecting the extradition or expulsion of PKK-related, PYD/YPG-related people from Sweden” and the ratification of Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications would be dependent on “what kind of action they will be taking,” Turkey’s presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told CNN on Monday.

  • Background: Speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson, Kalin said that the agreement between Turkey and the Nordic countries laid out “specific conditions” involving “taking steps to address Turkey’s security concerns.” Asked whether the extradition of suspected Kurdish militants constituted a condition for ratifying the NATO membership bids, Kalin said that Turkey had made it “very clear from the very beginning” that such conditions would have to be met. Erdogan has accused the two countries of harboring members of the separatist militant Kurdistan’s Workers Party, also known as PKK, which seeks an independent Kurdish state and been in an armed struggle with Turkey for decades.
  • Why it matters: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had last week renewed his threat to “freeze the process” of NATO membership for Sweden and Finland after conditionally agreeing to greenlight their bid following negotiations with the Nordic countries and NATO members in late June.

Iran marks sixfold increase in oil revenues

Iran increased its oil and condensates export revenues by 580% in comparison to the same period last year, reported the semi-official Tasnim news agency, citing Iranian economy minister Ehsan Khandouzi.

  • Background: The sixfold increase took place in the first four months of the Iranian year (from March 21 to July 22), reported Tasnim agency. Earlier this year, Iran’s central bank governor said the country had restored its oil production to pre-sanction levels, added Tasnim.
  • Why it matters: Talks between Tehran and world powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal in exchange for the lifting of sanctions have stalled since March. Iran’s economy continues to be throttled, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has begun taking precious Russian oil off the Western market. Russia and Iran today compete with discounted barrels in the Asian market, a key lifeline for Iran’s oil industry.

What to watch

After Russia and Ukraine signed a deal in Istanbul promising to release millions of tons of trapped Ukrainian grain, the questions now lie in the deal’s implementation.

International correspondent Nic Robertson, who spoke to Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, tells CNN’s Becky Anderson what to expect next.

Watch the report here:

Around the region

How much money do you think you could earn from playing popular video games like Fortnite or Rocket League? How does $15 million sound?

That’s the prize pot on offer across a number of tournaments this summer for skilled players at the Gamers8 Esports event in Saudi Arabia, with free-to-play Fortnite on the menu this week.

But watching is anything but — front row tickets to see the world’s best gamers will set you back $50 at Boulevard of Riyadh, an outdoor shopping, entertainment, and fine dining district dubbed Saudi’s Times Square. Some of the world’s most popular games are featuring, including the aforementioned Fortnite and Rocket League, but also Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege and mobile game PUBG.

This week’s Fortnite competition is one of the event’s biggest, with 44 teams of two battling it out for the $2 million prize. Huge amounts of cash are already being handed out across other tournaments, with individual players winning $25,000 for special achievement awards, while teams have taken home up to $1.5 million for coming out on top of frenzied digital battles.

Video games are immensely popular in Saudi Arabia, where 21.1 million played them in 2020, according to Intenta Digital, a gaming addiction research company, and the industry generated revenue of more than $1 billion in the Gulf nation in the same year.

By Eoin McSweeney

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