Despite the tense security situation in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for Ukraine Sunday on a two-day visit that political analysts are saying is primarily geared toward currying favor with Russian-speaking immigrants ahead of next month’s Knesset election.
Netanyahu’s working visit to Ukraine is the first by an Israeli prime minister since he traveled to the country during his first term in March 1999.
In Kiev, he will meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, both of whom are Jewish. Ukraine is currently the only country besides Israel where both the president and the prime minister are Jewish.
The trip comes a day after three armed Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops who thwarted an infiltration attempt in the northern Gaza Strip. Earlier Saturday and on Friday night, three rockets were fired at Israel from the coastal enclave.
Ahead of his trip, Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, said Israel would not hesitate to launch a large-scale military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, even during the peak of election season, if deemed necessary.
“We will embark on a wide campaign, if necessary,” he told reporters shortly before departing.
“I heard comments that I am refraining from a large [military] campaign because of the elections. This is not correct,” said Netanyahu. “Everyone who knows me knows that my considerations are matter-of fact and real, that I act with full cooperation with the security forces, with assertiveness and responsibility.
“If it is required, we will embark on a large campaign, with considerations to the elections — with elections or without elections,” he said.
Netanyahu is the first foreign leader to visit Kiev since Zelensky, a former actor with no previous political experience, was elected in April.
In Kiev, Netanyahu will also visit a memorial at Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were killed in just two days during the Holocaust, and meet with local Jewish community leaders. Zelensky is set to accompany him to the memorial, which will be the first time a Ukrainian president accompanies an Israeli official to the site.
Netanyahu will also commemorate the victims of the Holodomor, a man-made famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians and that Kiev has asked Jerusalem to formally recognize as a genocide.
According to unconfirmed reports in the Ukrainian and Russian press, the prime minister will also attempt to mediate between the two countries, which are engaged in a bitter military conflict. Israel has so far stayed neutral, defying Ukraine and many Western allies by refusing to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Will he score points with Israelis from Ukraine?
More than a third of all immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union hail from Ukraine, which is why many pundits and analysts have posited that Netanyahu was visiting the country less than a month before Israelis head to the polls as an effort to woo them.
Since Moldova-born Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman was blamed for torpedoing Netanyahu’s coalition-building efforts after the last elections, the prime minister’s Likud has actively targeted Russian-speaking voters.
“The visit to Ukraine can certainly help Netanyahu in the elections, in two ways,” said Avinoam Idan, an expert on Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union who teaches geostrategy at Haifa University.
“The first reason is quite trivial: he will be received by a head of state, which is always great photo op ahead of elections,” Idan said. “Second is, of course, the high percentage of Israelis with Ukrainian roots. A nice welcome in Kiev, especially by a Jewish president, can indeed increase Netanyahu’s standing” among this important segment of the electorate.
Idan and other analysts noted that many younger Russian-speaking Israelis don’t have the same emotional connection to the country their parents left years ago. At the same time, the prime minister could score points with elderly immigrants if he announces additional benefits for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, such as increased pensions.
However, a veteran analyst of the politics of Russian-speaking Israelis said it was foolish to believe that Netanyahu could win over even one voter by traveling to Ukraine.
“It’s true the Zelensky is very popular, both among local Jews and Ukrainian immigrants. But I don’t think a visit in Kiev will change people’s mind about whom to vote for,” said the analyst, who asked to remain unnamed. Israelis, even if they hail from the FSU, vote based on their interest and not on nostalgia, he posited. “If they wanted to be Ukrainians, they would have stayed in Ukraine. Whoever recommended to Netanyahu to go to Ukraine to get immigrants’ votes is an idiot.”
The formal part of Netanyahu’s visit takes place on early Monday morning at Kiev’s Park of Eternal Glory, where he will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He is also scheduled to lay a wreath at the “Candle of Memory,” a 30-meter-high candle-shaped structure commemorating the victims of the Holodomor.
In 1932 and 1933, the Soviet Union starved millions to death in what more than a dozen countries (but not Israel) have officially recognized as a genocide. Whether that label is historically accurate is the subject of scholarly debate; opponents argue that the man-made famine’s goal was not to annihilate the Ukrainian people per se.
In late January, then-president Petro Poroshenko, during a meeting with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in Jerusalem, explicitly called on the Israeli parliament to recognize the Holodomor as “a genocide of the Ukrainian people,” according to a readout provided by his office.
Poroshenko was also seen as equating the Holocaust and the Holodomor, eliciting harsh criticism from Israeli historians.
Netanyahu’s next stop is the Mariyinsky Palace, Zelensky’s official ceremonial residence. After their meeting, the two leaders will address the press and then have lunch together.
Zelensky is considered a strong supporter of Israel. “We must become Icelanders in soccer, Israelis in defending our land, Japanese in technology,” he said in his first speech as president in May.
Later on Monday, Netanyahu and Zelensky will attend a ceremony at Babi Yar for the Jews who perished there during World War II.
There are two monuments at Babi Yar, one usually visited by foreign dignitaries that commemorates all victims of Nazism who were killed at the site, and another one, with a giant menorah, that was built specifically to honor the more than 33,000 Jews who were shot by the Nazis and their local collaborators in September 29-30, 1941, in what is commonly known as the Holocaust’s deadliest shooting massacre.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Groysman, Ukraine’s outgoing prime minister. During the last elections, Groysman ran with his own party, which failed to cross the electoral threshold, and he will be replaced shortly.
Groysman will attend an event for Israeli and Ukrainian businesspeople hosted by Netanyahu in his Kiev hotel.
The prime minister will then welcome Ukrainian Jewish community leaders before heading back to Israel.
In January, Israel and Ukraine signed a free trade agreement, which Jerusalem said would increase the volume of bilateral trade.