Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko began a two-day state visit to Israel on Tuesday, with Jerusalem apparently confident that the full red carpet treatment for the Ukrainian leader will not impact Israel’s ties with Russia.
A few hours after Poroshenko met in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister called Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Israeli officials said that phone call, which focused on Syria, terrorism and regional issues, was planned in advance and had nothing to do with the Ukrainian president’s visit. The two leaders, according to both the Israeli and Russian readout of the call, agreed to continue the high-level dialogue between them.
The phone call came amid tension in the north following the killing in Damascus on Saturday of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar.
Netanyahu and Putin last met on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference at the end of last month. In September, Netanyahu flew to Moscow, soon after Russia’s military engagement in Syria, to set up a mechanism to prevent the accidental confrontation of Russian and Israeli fighter jets over Syria.
Israel took great pains in 2014 to remain completely neutral in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea, a position later saluted by Russian ambassador Alexander Shein.
Asked last month in an interview with the Post whether Russia was satisfied with Israel’s position on the Crimean crisis, Shein said that Israel “has taken a neutral stance on these issues.”
“Russia evaluates the Israeli approach on its merits, and we believe that Israel demonstrates a deep understanding of the issues, and I hope it reflects the fact that Israel cares for the future of its relations with Russia,” he said.
Netanyahu, in greeting Poroshenko to his office, said that the histories of the Jewish people and Ukraine have been intertwined for more than a thousand years.
“It is a history that encompasses both great accomplishment, as well as enormous tragedy,” he said. Netanyahu said the two countries have agreed to mark the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre next year. Nearly 34,000 Jews were killed on September 29-30, 1941 by Nazis and their local collaborators in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev.
Netanyahu mentioned the Jewish writers – such as Haim Nahman Bialik and Shai Agnon – who were born in Ukraine, as well as great rabbis such as the last Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, and Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.
He also mentioned that former Israeli prime ministers Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir were all born there, as was Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
“So, you can understand why many Israelis, like me, feel personally connected to your country,” he said, adding that tens of thousands of Israelis visit Ukraine every year, and even more Ukrainians visit Israel, as both sides are taking advantage of the visa-free travel that exists between the two states.
Netanyahu also commended Poroshenko for his “resolute stance against racism and anti-Semitism.”
Poroshenko, in his comments, said his talks will, among other issues, also focus on trade and economic cooperation, especially on reaching a free trade agreement with Israel to remove “all the barriers in bilateral trade.”
The two countries did some $400 million in trade in 2014, with Poroshenko saying he would like to see a billion dollars of trade each year.
The Ukrainian leader also met on Tuesday with President Reuven Rivlin and visited Yad Vashem.
He will address the Knesset on Wednesday.
President Rivlin called the special exemptions committee at the Foreign Ministry to ask them to allow those staff members assigned to Poroshenko and his entourage to work in the event that there is a strike. It would be unforgivable to leave a visiting head of state in the lurch because of an internal wage dispute, Rivlin told The Jerusalem Post at the state dinner he hosted for the Ukrainian president on Tuesday night.
Poroshenko said that although Ukraine and Israel are different in many ways, there are similarities in their common struggle for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and democracy.
Both countries also face external threats and are engaged in a fight against terrorism, he said. The Ukrainian people strongly resist external aggression, and are doing their best to transform their country, he said. “We won’t give up,” he added.
Poroshenko praised the determination of the Israeli people and the achievements of Israel in many fields in which it has become a lead player. Ukraine has much to learn from Israel’s knowledge and experience, he said.
He thanked Israel for its support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and for the humanitarian support that Israel has provided for wounded civilians and soldiers, who he referred to as “our heroes.”