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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky takes the oath during his inauguration ceremony in parliament hall in Kiev on May 20.(Photo by: VLADYSLAV MUSIIENKO / UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENTAL PRESS SERVICE / REUTERS)
Ukraine importance
By JPOST EDITORIAL
08/19/2019
Boris Lozhkin, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote that the visit “coincides with a reinvigoration of Israel-Ukrainian relations."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Ukraine this week for an historic visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister in 20 years. Ukraine is important to Israel for a variety of reasons, including history and because of a large population of Israelis whose relatives came from Ukraine, as well as emerging trade and cultural ties.

Ukraine has a Jewish president and a historically strong and important Jewish community. Israel and Ukraine are supposed to have increased trade; the countries have been worked on a free trade agreement. In addition, the Eastern European country is important to Israel at the UN. During his visit Netanyahu is meeting with Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko; President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish; and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. Talks are focusing on bilateral relations and have included a declaration of the establishment of joint hi-tech centers in each country.

Although short, the trip is full of symbolism. It includes a visit to the memorial site of Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. An additional estimated 70,000 non-Jews were also victims – including partisans, Soviet prisoners and others who were murdered at the same site – which unites Ukrainians in memories of the Nazi horrors. They also care deeply about the memory of Holodomor, the Stalin-era famine where many millions died. Netanyahu paid respects to the memories of these victims as well.

The multiple layers of history, economy and other ties show how important Ukraine is to Israel. For instance, there are thousands of Israelis who came from Ukraine who would like to receive state pensions from their homeland, an issue that the country has sought to accommodate. Netanyahu says that a free-trade area, state pensions and other issues will strengthen the relationship between Jerusalem and Kiev.

Boris Lozhkin, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote that the visit “coincides with a reinvigoration of Israel-Ukrainian relations.”

The visit is not without its hurdles and potential challenges. For instance the free trade agreement that Ukraine signed has not been ratified on the Israeli side, awaiting the swearing in of the new Knesset after elections next month. This is a bit embarrassing for Ukraine, which had hoped the agreement would come into effect sooner.

There is also the thorny and complex issue of Israel-Russia relations and the conflict in the Donbas region shared by eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia. Since 2014, Ukrainian separatists have carved out two regions, and there is a ceasefire and front line that now divides these Donbas areas from the rest of the country.

In addition, Russia annexed the Crimea, and there are bubbling tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Israel has grown close to Russia in recent years; Netanyahu even uses a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin on a campaign poster in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu’s trip has been interpreted as seeking to gain some votes from Jews in Israel who either are from Ukraine themselves or whose ancestors are Ukrainian.

Israel enjoys good relations with both countries, but it would be difficult to mediate their conflict due to the complexities that underpin Russia-Ukraine tensions. And Israel could end up angering both countries. Russia has more influence over this issue because of its role in Syria, while Ukraine has interests in trade with the Jewish state. Both countries have historic and cultural ties. It would be judicious to look at these three files separately: the regional security issues with Russia, trade with Ukraine and the way that Jewish history connects Israel to both countries.

Even when it comes to history, there are also challenges regarding antisemitism in Ukraine and the role of some far-right fringe groups. Here again, it is important for Israel to stand strongly with the local Jewish community. Balancing these complex issues is one of Netanyahu’s strong points: His visit should burnish them.

There has been criticism of the prime minister’s trip by the opposition in Israel, who claim that it’s merely an election jaunt aimed at Russian-speaking voters and, with the situation in Gaza so tense, especially bad timing for Israel’s leader to be abroad.

But there is merit to strengthening Israel’s ties to Ukraine, and there will always be those who say it’s not the right time.
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