FM Cohen to visit Ukraine, most senior Israeli official to do so since war began

Israel’s top diplomat accepts invitation during call with Ukrainian counterpart, urges Kyiv to join fight against Iranian Guards; Egypt sends message about Temple Mount

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 spoke on Thursday with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba and accepted the latter’s invitation to visit Kyiv.

Cohen would become the most senior Israeli official to visit since the war started 11 months ago, Israeli and Ukrainian officials told The Times of Israel.

During the phone call, Cohen also pledged to permanently reopen Israel’s embassy in Kyiv within 60 days.

The embassy has been open for two-week periods, with the staff otherwise working from Poland.

Noting Russia’s use of Iranian weapons to attack Ukraine, Cohen urged Kyiv to join in the fight against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and to encourage Europe to declare the military force a terror organization, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The European Parliament voted Wednesday to urge Brussels to list the IRGC as a terror group, amid mounting pressure on Western powers to do so.

Cohen also pledged Israel will continue providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, with a particular focus on energy infrastructure, medical equipment and water.

Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky (right) shakes hands with a Ukrainian official in front of a donated generator on December 20, 2022. (Israeli Embassy)

As Russia targets the Ukrainian energy grid with missile attacks, Israel sent 17 generators to Ukraine last month for use in the southeastern Kherson region, which was largely plunged into darkness by Russian bombardment. It also organized a structure in Kyiv in which citizens can warm up if their power fails.

Additionally, Cohen offered his condolences for Wednesday’s deadly helicopter crash that killed Ukraine’s interior minister, government officials and several children.

The conversation was originally scheduled for last week, but was delayed. Ukrainian officials told The Times of Israel that the delay was not any indication of displeasure on Ukraine’s part.

Cohen had irked Kyiv in his inaugural speech by saying Israel would speak out less about the war under the new government, and by speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov the next day, before holding a call with a Ukrainian official.

Israel had requested the Kuleba call hours before Cohen spoke with Lavrov.

Incoming Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry 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.

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.

A warning on Temple Mount

Also Thursday, Cohen spoke by phone with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry, in what Israel called “a warm conversation.”

According to the Foreign Ministry, the two agreed to expand security and economic cooperation and to meet in person in the near future. Cohen noted his intention to push for expanded cooperation in aquaculture, renewable energy and tourism.

Cohen also stressed the importance of direct flights to Sharm El-Sheikh, an initiative he advanced as intelligence minister.

Sameh Shoukry, president of the COP27 climate summit, speaks at the COP27 UN Climate Summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 6, 2022. (Peter Dejong/AP)

The Egyptian version of the conversation, unsurprisingly, has a different focus, according to  London-based online newspaper Rai Al-Youm. It noted that Shoukry stresses “the importance of working seriously to revive the peace process as soon as possible.”

Shoukry also said peace requires the suspension of unilateral measures, and underscored the need to preserve the legal and historical status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. This comes after several incidents at the flashpoint holy site that have angered Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.

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