Old world map without Ukraine nearly derails meet before start

PM holds ‘friendly’ UN sidelines meet with Zelensky against backdrop of tensions

Netanyahu vows to maintain humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but doesn’t respond to request for missile defense help, a sticking point for Kyiv; also meets leaders of Germany, Paraguay

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky meet on the UN General Assembly sidelines on September 19, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky meet on the UN General Assembly sidelines on September 19, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

UNITED NATIONS – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a meeting on Tuesday described by both sides as positive against the backdrop of tense relations since the start of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, which Zelensky said was “good” as he exited the room, was the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu returned to power in December of last year.

According to Netanyahu’s office, the meeting was “friendly” and Israel pledged to continue to provide humanitarian aid, including assistance in dealing with land mines.

But Israel nearly set the meeting off course before it even started.

The Prime Minister’s Office wanted a world map at the meeting, and the consulate brought one over, according to the Israel Hayom newspaper. However, the map that staff rushed to the UN building was from the 1960s and showed the Soviet Union, without an independent Ukraine.

It was quickly removed on a cart 10 minutes before the meeting began.

Netanyahu and Zelensky greeted one another with a handshake and a hug before exchanging pleasantries.

Zelensky remarked on the size of Netanyahu’s entourage, saying, “You have a very big team. It’s very expensive.”

UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan responded, “Many people want to participate.”

Zelensky then shook hands with all of Netanyahu’s senior staff, and had a brief but familiar conversation with Mossad chief David Barnea, warmly embracing him, suggesting the two have met quietly in recent months.

Zelensky brought a smaller team along, including his Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and chief of staff Andriy Yermak, said by some to push a harder line on Israel.

After the working meeting, Netanyahu and Zelensky held a 15-minute one-on-one meeting.

The atmosphere as the aides exited the room was upbeat, with Barnea speaking at length with Yermak and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer chatting with Kuleba.

Netanyahu and Zelensky agreed to stay in touch, and the meeting was “serious and comprehensive,” Israeli sources said afterward.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier in the day, Zelensky said Russia was carrying out “genocide” by abducting children, in a plea for solidarity from the international community.

“Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine and all ties with their families are broken, and this is clearly a genocide,” he said.

Wearing his trademark green military fatigues, Zelensky also renewed his call for a summit of like-minded nations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

“We are preparing a Global Peace Summit. I invite all of you — all of you who do not tolerate any aggression — to jointly prepare the summit,” Zelensky said.

Netanyahu has bucked repeated requests by Zelensky to visit Ukraine, making him one of the only Western leaders who has not made the trip. Netanyahu’s predecessors Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid avoided meeting Zelensky altogether.

Kyiv and Jerusalem have seen tensions over Israel’s policy on supplying aid to Ukraine. Though it has provided humanitarian aid and is also working on supplying Kyiv with an advance warning system for rockets, Israel has refused to send weaponry to the country — even for defensive purposes, such as missile interception. This is seen as a policy largely aimed at avoiding antagonizing Moscow. Russia currently controls much of Syria’s airspace, where Israel requires freedom to operate in order to prevent Iran and its proxies from entrenching themselves near Israel’s border.

The Zelensky meeting was the third in a series of sit-downs Netanyahu held with world leaders during the UN summit.

During their earlier, midday meeting, Netanyahu urged German Chancellor Olaf Scholz not to accept Iran’s recent move to bar several International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from monitoring nuclear sites in the country, the premier’s office said.

Netanyahu’s office said that the two leaders also discussed Iranian attempts to spread terror and its efforts to attain a nuclear weapon as well as bilateral security cooperation, including on the recently announced Israeli sale of the Arrow 3 ballistic missile interceptor system to Germany.

Barnea, the Mossad chief, who flew separately from Netanyahu, was present for the meetings with the Germans as well.

In the afternoon, Netanyahu met with Paraguay’s President Santiago Peña.

According to Netanyahu’s office, Peña said he would open Paraguay’s embassy in Jerusalem by the end of the year, which he already committed to in August. Netanyahu replied that he would reopen Israel’s embassy in Asunción.

Tal Schneider contributed to this report.

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