Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine April 21, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel lost one friend with Sunday’s resounding defeat of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, but gained someone who observers believe may bring Israeli-Ukrainian ties to an even higher plane with the victory of Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy, who has performed in Israel on numerous occasions and has relatives and classmates living here, defeated Poroshenko on Sunday in the second round of balloting in Ukraine.
Poroshenko was in Israel in January for 30 hours to sign a free trade agreement that was 15 year in the works, and which he said would bring Ukrainian-Israeli ties to new levels. That was Poroshenko’s third visit to Israel since he took office in 2014.
Annual trade between Israel and Ukraine stands at about $800 million a year, and the free trade agreement with Ukraine – Israel’s ninth – is expected to push that figure past the billion-dollar mark.
According to Shimon Briman – an Israeli-Ukrainian journalist who writes for a number of media outlets in both countries – the newly elected president has a sentimental attachment to Israel and will continue Poroshenko’s favorable policies toward Israel, and will probably show “even more warmth.”
Briman said there was a real possibility that Zelenskiy could move Ukraine’s embassy to Jerusalem, something that was discussed during Poroshenko’s visit in January.
“He is informal and unpredictable, like [US President Donald] Trump,” Briman said. “He could do it.”
Another Israeli journalist who emigrated from Ukraine, Rostislav Goltsman, also said the Jerusalem embassy move was a possibility, though he said that this is not currently a top issue for Ukraine, which is preoccupied with Crimea and its ongoing war with Russian separatists.
Zelenskiy turned into a household name in Ukraine thanks to a popular television comedy he starred in about a high school teacher who becomes president of Ukraine after a video of him ranting about government corruption goes viral.
He was reportedly being backed by the billionaire Ukrainian-Israeli oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, though Birman said the exact nature of the connection between the two men is not known. Kolomoyskyi owns the TV station that aired Zelenskiy’s show.
Briman said that even if there is a strong connection between the two, it will not harm Zelenskiy since Kolomoyskyi is viewed positively in Ukraine as a successful businessman who spent his own money in 2014, organizing volunteers and paying for fuel for Ukrainians fighting against the Russian separatists.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post from the central Ukranian city of Dnipro, Briman noted that relations with Israel were not an issue at all in the campaign, and that Zelenskiy never broached the subject.
He also noted that Zelenskiy’s Judaism was also never an issue in the campaign, and that his opponents did not bring it up. Ukraine’s current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman is also a Jew, he noted, meaning that outside of Israel, Ukraine is the only other country in the world that currently has both a Jewish president and prime minister.
Briman said this disproves the widely held notion in Israel that “all the Ukrainians are antisemitic,” noting that Zelenskiy beat Poroshenko even in the most nationalist regions in Western Ukraine.
Zelenskiy, according to Briman, is an example of assimilated Ukrainian Jews – someone whose spouse is not Jewish, and whose son went through a baptismal ceremony. At the same time, Briman added, he has also been seen in a synagogue attending a Holocaust memorial ceremony.
Though Briman said there was always the danger of antisemitism rising if things go bad for Ukraine under the new president, Goltsman noted that the economic situation in the country is currently in bad shape, but that this has not triggered antisemitism even though Prime Minister Groysman is a Jew and is responsible for domestic issues.
Goltsman, who served as the deputy head of the committee arranging for absentee ballots from Israel for the Ukrainian elections, estimated that some 15,000 Ukrainians are working in Israel, most of them in construction. Only 641 Ukrainians, however, cast absentee ballots, with Poroshenko winning 326 votes to Zelenskiy’s 315.
As a sign of the good ties between the two countries, Goltsman said, there are no visa requirements either for Ukrainians visiting Israel, or Israelis going to Ukraine. According to Goltsman, Israel is the greatest source of tourism for Ukraine beyond the countries that share a land border with it; some 290,000 Israelis visited Ukraine in 2018, according to Ukrainian border control figures.
According to Tourism Ministry figures, some 137,000 Ukrainians visited Israel last year, making it the eighth-largest source of tourism to Israel.
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