After Zelensky invitation, Kyiv has not talked to Israel about new food program

Scheme launched Saturday on anniversary of Stalin-era famine, but Israeli officials lack key details needed to decide on participation; embassy in Kyiv may reopen permanently

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with Greece's president (not seen) following their meeting at the Mariinskiy palace in Kyiv on November 3, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya SAVILOV / AFP)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with Greece's president (not seen) following their meeting at the Mariinskiy palace in Kyiv on November 3, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya SAVILOV / AFP)

Despite the presidents of both countries discussing Israeli participation in Ukraine’s new humanitarian initiative last week, Kyiv has had no further contact with Jerusalem about joining the Grain from Ukraine program, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Policymakers in Israel cannot determine a position without further information, they said.

The initiative, launched on Saturday to coincide with the memorial day for victims of the Ukraine Holodomor famine under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, has countries buying Ukrainian crops and sending them to African nations to alleviate hunger there.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a prepared address that up to 60 ships would bring grain by the beginning of the summer to Sudan, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, and Somalia in Africa, and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula.

In a tweet after his conversation with President Isaac Herzog on Thursday, Zelensky said that he had invited Israel to join the new initiative.

In a letter sent the next day, Herzog said he could not attend the Saturday food security summit in Kyiv because of the Jewish sabbath, but did note the importance of marking the 1932-1933 famine.

“It is important to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holodomor, and I recall how moved I was to lay a wreath during my visit one year ago at the memorial site in honor of those who perished,” Herzog wrote.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena pay tribute at a monument to victims of the Holodomor, Great Famine, which took place in the 1930s and killed millions, in Kyiv, Ukraine, November 26, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Herzog’s remarks, however, did not go as far as several other countries that declared the Holodomor a genocide.

The Thursday conversation between Zelensky and Herzog was the first time that Israeli officials learned about the program.

Since that phone call, Ukraine has not held further talks with Israel on the program, according to Israeli officials, and they are still waiting for important details to help them decide on a policy.

Ukraine’s embassy in Israel would not comment on discussions on the matter.

Ukraine’s memorial day for the Holodomor falls on the last Saturday in November each year.

The Holodomor — Ukrainian for “death by starvation” — is regarded by Kyiv as a deliberate act of genocide by Stalin’s regime with the intention of wiping out the peasantry and trying to crush independence hopes.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

Russia has rejected designating the disaster a genocide, arguing there is no proof the famine was directed at Ukrainians.

“Ukraine went through genocide,” said Zelensky on Saturday, “and today we are doing everything possible to stop Russia’s new genocidal policy.”

Several European leaders traveled to Ukraine to pledge support after weeks of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy grid caused widespread power and water cuts as temperatures plunged with the onset of winter.

“Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger, now — with darkness and cold,” Zelensky said in a video posted on social media. But he added: “We cannot be broken.”

Open for good

Despite ongoing attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, Israel is considering permanently reopening its embassy in Kyiv, cycling rotations of diplomats through the Ukrainian capital.

The Foreign Ministry is currently waiting for security recommendations from Israel’s Shin Bet security service before making a decision, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Israel Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky raises Israel’s flag in front of the embassy in Kyiv, May 17, 2022. (Facebook screenshot)

The embassy is currently closed, though since May it has been periodically reopened for two-week stretches. When they are not in Kyiv, Ambassador Michael Brodsky and his staff work out of Warsaw, Poland.

With Russia stepping up its missile and drone attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities in recent weeks, the embassy has remained closed due to safety concerns since late September.

None of the embassy’s local staff have been harmed in the strikes, and Israeli diplomats are in touch with them daily.

The embassy staff was initially moved to the western city of Lviv on February 21, three days before the start of the war. They were relocated five days later to a hotel in the Polish border city of Przemysl, where they spent much of their time at the often chaotic border crossings, helping Israeli citizens flee the country in the early weeks of the war.

The Foreign Ministry is preparing new shipments of humanitarian aid to help Ukraine cope with the attacks on its infrastructure.

Twenty large generators at a cost of around $1 million will be sent through Europe into Ukraine. Israel’s Mashav international development program is also sending about $1 million worth of medicine and medical equipment to Ukraine in the near future.

AFP contributed to this report. 

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