Shas MK enters stormy diplomatic waters with Crimea visit

Talks broke with policy of showing strict neutrality in Russia-Ukraine conflict

Shas MK Ya’acov Margi stepped into a diplomatic mine-field this week when he met with the head of the Russian-established government in Crimea, breaking with Israel’s policy of maintaining strict neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Margi, chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, met with Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, in talks that were trumpeted in the local press as a sign of cracks in the international isolation of the peninsula.
Only Nicaragua and Abkhazia have officially recognized Crimea as part of Russia, which annexed it in 2014. Meeting with government officials there is barred by Ukrainian law.
According to a Tass report, Aksyonov put out a statement that the meeting was likely to help Israeli citizens and governmental bodies “form an objective opinion about contemporary processes and events in Crimea.”
“Despite a widespread opinion that it is unsafe to be in Crimea, [Margi] became convinced of the opposite. He saw everything with his own eyes. I have no doubt that the people of Israel will learn the truth: Crimea returned to Russia on its own free will expressed by the people of Crimea,” Aksyonov said.
The statement quoted Margi as saying he saw the life of the Jewish community there “and that tells you the truth about Crimea. I can see calm people who go to shops and ride in public transport, though I used to have a totally different picture. Jews live in many countries, and [a] bad attitude to Jews is growing in many of them. But I feel very comfortable in Crimea,” Margi said, according to the statement.
There are an estimated 17,000 Jews in Crimea.
A spokeswoman at the Ukrainian embassy had no response to the visit.
Foreign Ministry officials said that they did not know in advance about Margi’s trip, and had they known, they would have advised against it.
Israel enjoys good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. While Jerusalem does not want to do anything to upset its critical relationship with Russia, Ukraine’s diplomatic importance increased significantly for Israel on January 1, when it became a member of the UN Security Council for the next two years.
Margi declined to comment through his spokesman, who said: “The trip was authorized by the Knesset Ethics Committee and coordinated with the Knesset Foreign Affairs Department, the Foreign Ministry, and other relevant factors.”
The Knesset’s Spokesman Yotam Yakir said Margi’s trip was not an official Knesset delegation and was not planned or coordinated with the Knesset, beyond the requisite authorization from the Ethics Committee.
Margi submitted to the Ethics Committee an invitation from Chief Rabbi of Sevastopol Binyomin Wolf, including an offer to fund his trip.
Last month the Ukrainian embassy issued a statement warning that Israeli companies engaged in “business activity in cooperation with the illegal authorities of Crimea without a permit” may be subject to sanctions.
Such activities, the embassy asserted in a statement, are a violation of both Ukrainian and international law, and should they continue, “relevant information will be transmitted to the competent authorities of Ukraine to further bring to justice perpetrators of violations of the current legislation.”
Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, came to Israel in December and during a Knesset address said that Israel should side with his country in this conflict.
“When evil wins in one place, it will try to continue to another,” Poroshenko said. “We need to act in cooperation, and Israeli politicians should make their stance towards Ukraine very clear.”
Lahav Harkov and Sam Sokol contributed to this report