An unnecessary visit: Netanyahu returns from Ukraine with few achievements
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An unnecessary visit: Netanyahu returns from Ukraine with few achievements

First trip in 20 years overshadowed by wife’s gaffe at welcome ceremony; new government in Kyiv, too, has few accomplishments to boast of

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) stands alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as they watch marching soldiers during a welcoming ceremony in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on August 19, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) stands alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as they watch marching soldiers during a welcoming ceremony in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on August 19, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Bilateral visits are designed to serve the interests of both states. When Israel and Ukraine agreed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would travel to Kyiv in mid-August, the two governments each had their own expectations of how the visit could serve their national agendas.

As Netanyahu landed back in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening after a two-day visit, it was unclear if either side has reasons to be particularly happy about the outcome. Neither Netanyahu nor his host, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, have significant achievements to show.

The difference between them is that Zelensky was just voted into office, while his guest is facing a tough reelection battle in less than a month, and had hoped to present the Israeli voters with far greater tidings than the relatively meager spoils with which he returned.

The trip started on the wrong foot, when the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, was seen discarding a piece of bread, traditionally offered to visitors, when the couple disembarked their plane in Kyiv on Sunday evening. Ukrainian and Israeli officials sought to downplay the matter, trying (rather unsuccessfully) to prevent the uncomely gesture from overshadowing the entire visit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, and wife Sara, walk to visit a monument in Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops machine-gunned many thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on August 19, 2019. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

The next morning, Netanyahu was welcomed by Zelensky at the Mariyinsky Palace, his official ceremonial residence, where they powwowed behind closed doors for more than three hours.

Addressing a dozen Israeli and 130 local journalists afterwards, the two leaders summed up their conversation, each with a different focus.

Netanyahu stressed two decisions that were made: Firstly, to “immediately start working” on ratifying the Israel-Ukraine free trade agreement, which was signed earlier this year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, stand at Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops murdered tens of thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Zoya Shu)

“The second is to open both in Kyiv and in Jerusalem hi-tech development offices,” he said.

The prime minister also thanked Zelensky for his promise to “work towards the ratification of the pensions agreement” Israel and Ukraine signed in 2014. “You asked that we pass on to you updated information for this purpose. I will definitely do that,” he vowed.

Furthermore, Netanyahu expressed gratitude to the new Ukrainian leader for agreeing to work on a mutual development project for Uman.

Every year ahead of the Jewish High Holidays, about 50,000 Israelis travel to this usually sleepy town three hours drive south of the capital to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav, a revered Hasidic leader.

And that pretty much sums up Israel’s achievements in Kyiv this week.

In a briefing to the traveling press on Monday evening, Netanyahu hailed his visit as “historic,” but struggled to convincingly explain it was necessary in light of the rather underwhelming accomplishments.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are greeted at the airport in Kiev by Ukrainians dressed in traditional outfits on August 18, 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The anticipated opening of a Ukrainian high-tech office in Jerusalem will “strengthen Israel’s diplomatic and technological ties” with the Eastern European country,” he said. “I won’t lie to you and say that we don’t want Ukraine to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem in the future,” he admitted, trying hard not to appear disappointed that no such announcement was made this week.

The promised ratification of the free trade agreement promises great benefits for Israel’s economy, he went on.

And the fact that Zelensky will consider the pensions agreement is a big deal, explained Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who accompanied Netanyahu on his trip this week.

It was signed in 2014, before Ukraine’s pro-Russian government was toppled, and therefore it was not at all certain that Zelensky would be willing to accept the same terms to which his predecessor agreed, Elkin explained.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, hosts PM Netanyahu at his official residence in Kyiv, August 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“This affects tens of thousands of Israelis,” the Ukrainian-born politician said. “It was very important that Zelensky said he will to consider ratifying the agreement.”

The Israeli-Ukrainian development project in Uman encompasses a major infrastructural update, including widening access roads and building a hospital, according to Elkin, the government’s point man on this project. Jerusalem and Kyiv are planning to recruit investors to finance the venture, he said.

Improving conditions for pilgrims to Uman and increasing the pensions of immigrants may win Netanyahu points with certain voters. But even some analysts generally supportive of the prime minister opined that this week’s trip to Ukraine was unnecessary.

Was the visit much better for the Ukrainians?

The mere fact that Netanyahu — whom Zelensky praised as one of the greatest statesmen of our time — came to Ukraine was an achievement for the new president, a former actor with no political experience. The Israeli prime minister was the first foreign dignitary to visit Kyiv since Zelensky was inaugurated three months ago. But that was about it in terms of Ukrainian accomplishments.

At their joint press appearance Monday, Zelensky mentioned the hi-tech development offices to be opened in Kyiv and Jerusalem and hailed the potential of increased economic cooperation with Israel. He did not talk about Uman, and, notably, didn’t mention the pensions even with one word.

Instead, the Ukrainian leader focused on issues that preoccupied him and his electorate — the country’s ongoing war with Russia and its historical narrative of victimhood during the Soviet occupation.

Curiously, Zelensky thanked Israel for its “continued support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and for an unwavering stand on the war in the east of our country and the annexation of Crimea.”

It’s hard to believe that he wasn’t aware that Israel remained neutral, refusing to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of the peninsula in 2014.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, on August 19, 2019. – Netanyahu is in a two-days official visit in Ukraine. (SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP)

Perhaps Zelensky hoped his undeserved gratitude would motivate Netanyahu to use the opportunity of his first visit to Ukraine in 20 years to publicly back the country against Moscow’s aggression. If so, he was disappointed.

The prime minister didn’t mention Crimea or Russia even once during his two days in Kyiv. When this reporter asked him to comment on the matter, he demurred, saying he had nothing new to offer.

Zelensky also publicly called on Israel to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide, but once again did not get what he hoped for.

In 1932 and 1933, the Soviet Union deliberately starved to death millions of Ukrainians and others. Many country, not including Israel, officially recognize the man-made famine as a genocide, though scholars argue whether this label is historically accurate.

For Israel, the matter is ultra-delicate not merely because recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide would upset Russia, but also because it could be interpreted as lessening the importance of the Holocaust.

Netanyahu on Monday briefly visited a monument commemorating Ukrainian victims of the Holodomor, silently placing a symbolic basket of wheat at the feet of a bronze statue of a starving Ukrainian girl. But he carefully avoided mentioning the matter in public. When this reporter asked him about Zelensky’s request for recognition, the prime minister refused to comment on the record.

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