When Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sits down in Jerusalem on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they will definitely talk about trade, certainly talk about the situation in the region, and likely discuss Russia.
For, as the standing joke goes in Kiev, with Russia deeply entrenched in Syria, both Israel and Ukraine have their own problems with their Russian neighbor.
The two leaders might also talk about something else they have in common: elections. Both men are facing elections within the next three months: Netanyahu on April 9, and Poroshenko on March 30. As incumbent leaders benefit from looking “presidential” in the midst of an election campaign – dealing with matters of high diplomacy covered in the media, as their opponents scramble for issues to get them airtime – this particular photo opportunity is beneficial for both of them.
They could also conceivably talk about Russian meddling in elections – especially following the statement by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Nadav Argaman last week saying that a foreign country is trying to influence Israel’s balloting through its cyber capabilities. While the identity of the country was not revealed, it was widely assumed to be Russia. And if the Russians have an interest in meddling in the Israeli election, they certainly have an even greater stake in the outcome of the elections in Ukraine. In fact, a task force of NGOs was established in Kiev in September comprised of experts in disinformation and cybersecurity to monitor possible interference and raise the alarm if they detect outside meddling.
Unlike Netanyahu, whose poll figures remain strong despite fraud, bribery and breach of trust allegations against him, Poroshenko’s situation in the polls is far less sanguine.
Polling has him trailing Yulia Tymoshenko, the veteran Ukrainian politician and former leader of the Orange Revolution once easily recognizable by a distinctive braided coiffure; and the newest entry into the race, Jewish comedian Vladimir Zelensky.
Zelensky, who stars in a popular television comedy about a high school teacher who becomes president of Ukraine after a video of him ranting about government corruption goes viral, stunned the country at the beginning of the year when he said he wants reality to imitate art, and threw his hat into the presidential ring. He is reportedly being backed by the billionaire Ukrainian-Israeli oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi.
Jerusalem would be comfortable with any of those candidates, according to diplomatic officials, and could work well with any of them. This is a marked change from two years ago when ties between the two countries nose-dived following Ukraine’s vote in the UN Security Council for Resolution 2334, which slammed Israel for its settlement policies and said that its presence beyond the Green Line, including in east Jerusalem, violates international law.
Just a year earlier, during Poroshenko’s first visit here as president, he addressed the Knesset and said that the most important element in deepening bilateral ties between the two countries was Ukraine’s election to the Security Council for the years 2016-2017.
“I promise that while holding this esteemed position, Ukraine will be an advocate of peace and justice all over the world, including the Middle East,” he stated. And then in 2017 Ukraine voted for the resolution, which the US pointedly did not veto, causing a mini-crisis in Israeli-Ukrainian ties. The White House reportedly called Poroshenko and pressed him to vote for the measure.
Israel vented its anger against Kiev by canceling a scheduled visit of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. The rift was healed a few months later, however, when Groysman did make the visit.
Disappointment about how the other side votes at the UN, however, is a two-way street, and Ukraine also has had cause for disappointment for Israel’s failure to vote against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and for Ukraine at the UN. In his Knesset speech in 2015, Poroshenko urged Israeli politicians to “present their position regarding Ukraine more clearly.”
In 2014, the US was reportedly furious at Israel for not voting for a resolution condemning Russia for its annexation of Crimea. That vote passed 100-11, with 58 abstentions. Israel did not show up for the vote, and the reason given at the time was that the Foreign Ministry was on strike.
It took a couple years, but Israel altered course in December, voting with Ukraine on a General Assembly resolution calling for an end to Russia’s occupation and militarization of Crimea.
ACCORDING TO Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Joel Lion, the relations between the two countries now are “very good.”
In fact, Lion said, Ukraine sees Israel as a role model.
“They see us as an example of a country that gained independence and developed an economy while surrounded by enemies and involved in wars,” he said.
“There is a war here,” he said, speaking by phone from Kiev, “and they need to develop their economy. This war has closed their market with Russia. They need to find new markets, retread their factories for the new world. In the last four years they are becoming independent, and they see in Israel an example of a country that succeeds.”
Poroshenko said as much in his speech to the Knesset.
Ukraine, he said, is “in awe of your achievements in science, medicine and the military, and of the diligence of the Jewish people, who built a modern and prosperous country in such a short time. Today we are dealing with challenges that are similar to those you have faced, and we are learning from your experience – the war against centrality and corruption, as well as judicial and military reforms, and more.”
Lion said that the Ukrainians are asserting their national identity through an emphasis on speaking Ukrainian, rather than Russian; breaking away – after some 800 years – from the Moscow Patriarchate and creating an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church; and building a volunteer army with a NATO orientation.
On paper, Israel has much to offer the country as far as building up its military, but is not doing so because of not wanting to poison its ties with Moscow. Kiev has shown that it understands the geopolitical situation in the region, and the limits placed on Israel because of its need to maintain close ties with Moscow.
But that doesn’t mean that Israel has not provided assistance to Ukraine, just not with military hardware or expertise. It has, however, helped the rehabilitation of people wounded in the fighting, sending doctors back and forth to two hospitals in the country, and having organized training seminars both in Israel and Ukraine for medical personnel.
Lion said that the primary purpose of Poroshenko’s visit now, his third since becoming president in 2014 – in addition to his visit in 2015, he also came to Shimon Peres’s funeral in 2016 – is to sign a free trade agreement that has been in the works for the last seven years. This agreement, he said, will boost trade between the two countries by some 15% within the next five years.
According to Lion, with annual trade between Israel and Ukraine today at about $800,000 a year, this agreement – Israel’s ninth free trade agreement – will push that figure past the billion dollar mark.
Lion said that more than 60% of Israel’s imports from Ukraine are wheat, barley, corn, and sunflower and cottonseed used to make cooking oil. The significance of the free trade agreement, he said, is that it will be cheaper to import these products, something that could bring down the prices in Israel of flour and oil.
The agreement will also open up the Ukrainian market to Israeli fruits and vegetables, something that could lower prices there as well.
But corn, wheat barley, avocados and oranges are not the only things crossing the borders.
With six flights a day to Kiev alone, and other flights to other parts of Ukraine, the country has become a relatively hot (and cheap) place for Israeli tourists. Lion said that based on Ukrainian border control figures, some 290,000 Israelis visited the country in 2018.
In terms of comparison, some 503,000 Israelis visited Greece, among the top tourism destinations for Israelis, in 2017 – meaning that Ukraine is pretty high up on the list for Israelis.
Lion divided the tourists into three categories. The first category includes some 60,000 “pilgrims” who visit the graves of hassidic masters, such as the tomb of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov in Uman, but also other sites as well, such as the tomb of Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Gadyach, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad; and Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in Berditchev.
The second category consists of “roots tours” in the summer, comprised of groups and extended families who go to the country – Galicia – in search of the “shtetl” and where their ancestors originated.
And the final group consists of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, who take advantage of the cheap airfare to vacation – and shop – in a country where they feel comfortable with the language and culture.
The tourism runs both ways. According to Tourism Ministry figures, some 137,000 Ukrainians visited Israel last year, making it the eighth-largest source of tourism to Israel in the world.
JERUSALEM AND its holy sites are some of the principal destinations, and Jerusalem will be one of the topics that will be raised during Poroshenko’s talks here – the possibility of Ukraine moving its embassy to the capital.
Although this is an issue raised frequently in meetings between top Israeli and Ukrainian officials, the likelihood of such a move at this time is slim, despite the close relationship now between Jerusalem and Kiev.
One of obstacles is a concern in Kiev that if it would take any steps regarding Jerusalem, it would antagonize the Arab and Muslim countries whose votes it needs (but does not actually get) at the UN in its conflict with Russia.
For instance, while Israel voted with Ukraine in December, most of the surrounding Arab states abstained, did not show up, or – as in the case of Syria – voted with Russia. And this is something Poroshenko will surely be reminded of during his 30-hour visit this week.
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