KYIV, Ukraine — Only six weeks into his tenure as foreign minister, Eli Cohen embarked on a trip that was as complex logistically as it was diplomatically.
Disagreements causing tensions in the Israel-Ukraine relationship have persisted since Russian forces invaded its neighbor 51 weeks ago. Kyiv wants Israel to stand firmly with the West, taking a clear moral position against Moscow and President Vladimir Putin. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish president, also wants the Jewish state to offer its vaunted air defense technologies as a frustrated Russia attacks civilian infrastructure with missiles and drones.
Israel, determined to maintain its deconfliction with Russia in the skies over Syria and its productive relationship with the global power, has made do with providing humanitarian aid to Kyiv and voting with it in the UN.
The new government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems like it wants to move the dial noticeably in Kyiv’s direction. A major driver of this policy is a desire to show that it stands with its Western allies, especially as their public criticism grows louder over judicial reform and settlements. And with Iranian weapons playing an increasingly important role in Russian bombardments, Jerusalem also sees an opportunity to paint Tehran as a threat to both Israel and Ukraine – and by extension, the democratic West.
Cohen understood early on that a visit to Kyiv – as the only Israeli minister to reach the capital during the war – could set bilateral relations on a new path after a year of often-public recriminations.
During his first week in office, Cohen couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. In his inaugural speech to the Foreign Ministry, he said that Israel would “talk less” about the war, a statement many allies interpreted as an indication that the new government would not criticize Russia publicly. He also announced that he would be speaking with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before fielding a call from any Ukrainian officials, leading to angry statements from Kyiv.
But Cohen soon settled in. He eventually spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, who invited him to Kyiv. And when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to Jerusalem to hector Israeli officials on the basics of democracy, Cohen was able to blunt the criticism somewhat by confirming that he would be flying to Ukraine in the near future.
It turned out that was easier said than done.
Zelensky and Kuleba flew to the UK on the dates Cohen was originally slated to meet them, forcing him to push off the visit by a week.
With Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan willing to meet him to show appreciation for Israel’s rescue efforts after last week’s deadly earthquakes, Cohen flew to Ankara the day before his Ukraine trip.
Overland to the war zone
Because of the ongoing war, Cohen couldn’t make the Kyiv visit another one-day affair.
The airspace over the country is closed to civilian traffic, so he had to land in a neighboring country, then make his way overland to the capital… and make sure he was back in Israel in time for the start of the Sabbath on Friday night.
Originally, Cohen and his delegation were planning to fly to Moldova because of its relative proximity to Kyiv. But he decided that it would be more comfortable for his aides and the journalists in tow to travel on an overnight train from the Polish border town of Przemysl.
After taking off from Ben-Gurion Airport on a charter flight on Wednesday, Cohen and his team landed in Rzeszow, Poland, then climbed into a convoy to make the hour-long drive to Przemysl.
With police securing the darkened station, the Israeli delegation boarded a waiting train, emblazoned with Ukraine’s coat of arms, the trident of Volodymyr the Great.
Before heading off to sleep during the ten-hour ride, a rather bemused-looking Cohen — whose everyman demeanor has helped him move up within the ranks of the Likud party — poked his head into the journalists’ sleeping cabins, shaking hands and reassuring us that this was a better way of getting to Kyiv than bouncing around the roads in Moldova and southeastern Ukraine.
Israel’s diplomatic teams in Warsaw and in Kyiv scrambled to make sure there was ample kosher food for the delegation, packing one of the cars with hot meals for the journey.
Cohen stepped off the train into the much colder Kyiv air on Thursday morning, as alert Ukrainian soldiers kept a close eye on the Israelis spilling out onto the platform.
Their country at war, Ukrainian officials wear khaki military-style clothes, even during diplomatic meetings. In a nod to his host’s dressed-down style, Cohen chose to forgo a tie the entire trip.
Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, was waiting on the platform to greet Cohen as protocol demands, dressed sharply in a jacket and blue tie. Once he noticed how his boss was dressed, Brodsky quickly removed the offending item.
The trip started solemnly in lands stained by the blood of those murdered in 2022 and in 1941. In Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where Russian troops slaughtered hundreds of civilians and left their bodies in the streets, Cohen walked across a muddy field crusted with ice as he laid a wreath on a mass grave containing 116 bodies.
The diplomatic tightrope Cohen was trying to walk nearly unraveled in the church next to the graves. Asked directly whether he would condemn Russia by name, Cohen refused, saying only that Israel stands in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
Ukrainian officials said the non-condemnation threw his planned meeting with Zelensky into doubt.
As the air grew colder under the gray skies, Cohen paid a visit to Babyn Yar, the ravine in which over 30,000 Jews were shot in September 1941. He and his ministry’s director general, Ronen Levy, planted a tree, unlikely to last long in the frozen ground.
Cohen’s schedule allowed him some time for a tour of central Kyiv. His guides took him to the 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral, a rare choice for a senior Israeli official.
Though there are no longer Russian soldiers in Kyiv’s suburbs, signs of war were everywhere. Cohen’s convoy drove past metal barricades and checkpoints on the city’s main roads, most of which are no longer manned. He was driven through riverbeds as he traveled to his meetings, while crews worked nearby to fix the bridges Ukrainian forces exploded to slow a potential Russian advance.
There was no getting away from the ongoing conflict inside the government buildings either. The windows of the grand Soviet-era Foreign Ministry building were covered with sandbags. As Cohen and Kuleba walked through the hallways ahead of their hour-long meeting, air raid sirens sounded, underscoring Ukraine’s need to protect their skies.
Kuleba seemed encouraged by what he heard from Cohen. He emerged from the meeting relaxed, chatting amicably with leading Ukraine rabbi Moshe Azman before telling reporters he was “satisfied” by an Israeli offer of loan guarantees and help to create a civil air defense system.
— Lazar Berman (@Lazar_Berman) February 16, 2023
Into the darkened presidential offices
At that stage, Ukrainian officials were still giving the impression that the meeting with Zelensky was not finalized. But two hours later, Cohen and a minimal team found themselves in the darkened hallways of the presidential offices, guided by guards holding flashlights.
The two men found common ground, especially on the Iran threat, which Zelensky called “a common enemy.” The president also wrote on his social media pages that Israel is Ukraine’s most important partner in the Middle East.
In the evening, after visiting Azman’s Brodsky Synagogue and meeting with Jewish leaders, Cohen rushed back to Kyiv’s train station for another overnight journey.
As the train chugged westward in the winter air toward the Polish border, Cohen had reason to hope that he had set the course of Israel-Ukraine relations on a new track, one that could also help smooth Netanyahu’s relationship with the West.
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