FM Cohen set to speak with Ukraine’s Kuleba after call with Moscow irked Kyiv

Scheduled conversation comes after doubts arose about Ukraine’s willingness to speak to newly appointed top diplomat

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is scheduled to speak by phone on Thursday with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, a Foreign Ministry source confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday.

Israel had requested the call last week.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry informed Israel on Monday that Kuleba was willing to go ahead with the conversation, saying that Kyiv could not return an answer until now because the minister was on vacation, according to the Israeli source.

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk could not confirm that the call was set for Thursday.

News of the scheduled conversation comes after doubts arose over Ukraine’s willingness to speak to Israel’s newly appointed top diplomat.

Cohen’s phone call last Tuesday with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and his earlier assertion that Israel would “talk less” in public about Moscow’s invasion of its Western neighbor, clearly irked Kyiv.

Korniychuk said afterward that Ukraine saw Cohen’s call with Lavrov as evidence of a change in Jerusalem’s position on the war. “Israel’s minister of foreign affairs hasn’t spoken to Lavrov since the war started,” he told The Times of Israel.

The Ukrainian envoy also went out of his way last week to emphasize that neither Kuleba nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had asked to speak with Cohen.

Lavrov called Cohen to congratulate him on taking up his new post and to discuss “bilateral and regional issues” in the shadow of Moscow’s ongoing invasion and bombardment of Ukraine.

Incoming minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel shortly after the Cohen-Lavrov conversation that “there is no change in Israel’s policy” in the wake of speculation that there was a shift in favor of Moscow.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in support of aiding Ukraine, was among those who saw Cohen’s remarks as an indication that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would avoid denouncing Russia publicly over its invasion.

“The idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving,” Graham said in a tweet.

Korniychuk said that Israel’s position on the Russian invasion is “unclear.”

“Unfortunately, we are getting no condemnation of the mass shelling of our civilians in recent months. Israel is unique in terms of our partners. It remains silent,” he said.

Russia has carried out airstrikes on Ukrainian power and water supplies almost weekly since October, increasing the suffering of Ukrainians, while its ground forces struggle to hold ground and advance.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, walks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as they arrive for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, April 7, 2022. (AP Photo/ Olivier Matthys)

The previous government headed by Naftali Bennett and then Yair Lapid had refused Ukrainian requests for weapons, but Lapid spoke out repeatedly against the Russian invasion, accusing the Kremlin of carrying out war crimes. The comments won praise in the West, but stoked tensions with Moscow, even as Jerusalem attempted to maintain a semblance of neutrality.

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure. Israel has so far refused to provide such aid, out of apparent concern for Russia’s reaction.

Cohen intends to keep Israeli humanitarian aid flowing to Ukraine, according to an Israeli source, and is figuring out ways to do so even without a state budget for 2023.

During his previous terms in office, Netanyahu touted his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and insisted that it was critical to maintaining the IDF’s ability to operate freely in Russian-controlled skies over Syria in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border. As opposition leader, he initially criticized the previous government for neglecting ties with Russia as Jerusalem took several limited steps in support of Ukraine following the invasion by Putin’s forces in February.

However, Netanyahu changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of the November election, he characterized the Bennett-Lapid government’s Ukraine policy — which has seen Israel supply humanitarian aid, operate a field hospital in Ukraine and take in a limited number of largely Jewish refugees while stopping short of providing Kyiv-requested military aid — as “pragmatic.”

Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returned to the premiership, and told Zelensky after the election that he had not yet determined Israel’s policy. He also assured the Ukrainian president that he would remain in the loop.

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