Both Jerusalem and Kiev face similar existential challenges from their neighbors, visiting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asserted Tuesday during an official state visit.
Although Israel and Ukraine have different histories, “We still have the certain similarities and one of those is about building up a successful state against turbulent regional realities and under continuous attack [by] terrorists,” he said during a joint press conference with President Reuven Rivlin, referring to Moscow-backed separatists currently fighting Ukrainian forces along the Russian border.
“Ukraine stands with the State of Israel in its fight for democracy and against crucial security challenges,” Poroshenko continued. “We also hope for Israeli [reciprocity] and clear support of Ukrainian independence, territorial integrity and non-recognition of annexation of the Crimea[n peninsula].”
Speaking alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later, Poroshenko expressed gratitude to those who have opposed Russia’s 2014 occupation of the territory.
Israel has stayed largely silent regarding Russian actions in Ukraine, with a US State Department spokesman stating last year she was “surprised” Israel did not show up for a vote in the UN General Assembly in March in favor of a resolution affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Israel explained at the time that it missed the vote due to a Foreign Ministry strike.
Officials have explained Israel’s neutrality in Russian-Ukrainian issues as being motivated by a desire not to antagonize Russia, which – if it so desired – could cause Israel enormous headaches when it comes to issues such as Middle East arms sales and its ties with Syria and Iran.
Asked about whether or not Jerusalem’s ongoing close relationship with Moscow has been an impediment to building closer ties between Ukraine and Israel during an interview with The Jerusalem Post
Tuesday, however, Poroshenko said Ukraine does “not allow Russia to affect our relationship” with Israel.
“I think that the relationship between [both countries’] leaders is one of trust,” Poroshenko said, leaning forward over a table at the David Citadel Hotel while compulsively fingering a set of rosary beads in one hand.
Citing a series of bilateral agreements signed during the course of the day covering cooperation in several fields, including cinema production and scientific research road safety, Poroshenko said coordination between the two countries is robust.
“During the last year and a half I have at least five or six times spoken with Netanyahu,” and the pair has engaged in an “intensive dialogue,” he said.
In 2012, in the General Assembly vote to admit the Palestinians as a non-member state, Ukraine did not show up for the vote. And in the 2011, Ukraine abstained in the vote on admitting the Palestinians to UNESCO.
While observers have characterized Ukraine’s voting record on Israel as better than most, Jerusalem has indicated that it wants to see its allies vote on its side more often in international fora.
Asked if closer coordination between the countries was possible, Poroshenko replied, “We intensively coordinated our voting,” citing Ukraine’s upcoming entrance as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, a move supported by Jerusalem.
Since Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following street protests in Kiev in early 2014, Russia has consistently asserted that the new Ukrainian government is guilty of both fascist and anti-Semitic tendencies, accusations that both the administration and local Jewish leaders deny.
“How can I react to Russian propaganda,” Poroshenko asked. “It’s simple. Nobody in the world believes the Russians during this war – this is just another form of war, not only on the battlefield but using propaganda spanning hundreds of millions of dollars to create a negative image of Ukraine.”
During the last presidential election cycle, the radical-right parties received around only two percent of the vote, losing most of their seats in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, an outcome Poroshenko said he believes is the “best evidence” that Ukraine does not provide fertile ground for hate.
“The best way to check is to ask Jewish community leaders in Ukraine,” he continued, referring to the community leaders in his entourage, including Kiev Chabad Rabbi Moshe Azman and Kharkiv parliamentarian and Ukrainian Jewish Committee founder Oleksandr Feldman, among others.
“The inter-parliamentary group between the Rada and the Knesset is one of the most popular in the parliament,” he added.
While anti-Semitic violence in Ukraine and Russia is low by Western European standards, accusations of anti-Semitism have been bandied about as a way for the players in the conflict to delegitimize their opponents, and anti-Semitic vandalism has risen observably over the past year.
And while Poroshenko said he did not have information regarding a government promise last year to appoint an official to oversee the fight against anti-Semitism, he did say that recent occurrences of vandalism have spurred the creation of a unit within the Ukraine’s state security service tasked with combating anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
He declined to comment on a statement by his Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, asserting that vandalism against Jewish sites were meant to “destabilize” Ukraine, but added that he would “defend the right of any Ukrainian [regardless] of nationality” to “feel comfortable” there.
Regarding Jewish concerns over the government’s decision in April that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – an ultra-nationalist faction that sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state – would be eligible for official government commemoration, Poroshenko was sanguine, stating that the government was paying tribute to those who fought for national independence.
“Let’s not try to find the black cat in the black room, especially if there is nothing there,” he said.