Zelensky: Israel always our important partner in Middle East

Hosting Israel’s FM Cohen in Kyiv, Zelensky says Iran is ‘common enemy’

FM pledges air defense warning system for Ukraine within months, looks to increase cooperation against Tehran in int’l bodies; Russian TV denounces Cohen’s visit to a ‘Nazi state’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister meets with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister meets with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told Foreign Minister Eli Cohen that Iran is a “common enemy” during their meeting in Kyiv on Thursday.

The two spoke about deepening cooperation against Iran in international fora, according to Cohen.

“The evil face of Iran is being revealed in Ukraine,” Cohen told Zelensky.

Iran has been supplying Russia with drones used to attack Ukraine, including airstrikes on civilian infrastructure.

Cohen stressed to Zelensky that Israel “supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

Zelensky said after the meeting that Israel “has always been our important partner in the Middle East.”

The wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine, September 13, 2022. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP)

“I am grateful for the humanitarian aid provided,” he said in a statement. “We discussed the country’s participation in post-war reconstruction. Ukraine could use Israel’s experience in demining.”

Zelensky added that he hopes Cohen’s visit will contribute to the deepening of bilateral cooperation.

Cohen met with the Ukrainian leader in his Kyiv office, after being guided through darkened hallways by guards with flashlights.

Foreign Minister meets with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Israel’s top diplomat offered Zelensky and Ukraine’s foreign minister new measures of support, including a $200 million loan guarantee for healthcare and civilian infrastructure, and a pledge to develop a “smart early warning system.”

The airstrike warning system would be similar to the technology Israel uses to warn civilians of rocket attacks.

The system is expected to reach Ukraine within 3-6 months.

Zelensky also asked Cohen to increase the number of wounded soldiers being treated in Israel, and to allow another 15,000 Ukrainians into Israel with work permits.

Cohen said that Israel would offer a list of tangible measures, including reconstruction and water projects, within 3-4 months.

A line of patients at Israel’s field hospital in Mostyska, Ukraine, March 26, 2022. (Screenshot: Kan public broadcaster)

The value of Israeli aid projects over the past year has topped NIS 80 million ($22.5 million).

Cohen also pledged that Israel would vote in favor of the “peace resolution” that will come up for a vote in the United Nations next week to mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Cohen met earlier Thursday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

“Israel, as stated in the past, stands firmly in solidarity with the people of Ukraine,” said Cohen alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, “and remains committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Kuleba sounded a guardedly positive tone in his statement, saying he was “satisfied” with their conversation, and tweeted that Ukraine was “thankful for all of the support that Israel and Israelis have provided over the past year.”

Sources who spoke to Kuleba after the meeting told The Times of Israel that the Ukrainian foreign minister indicated he was pleased with the discussion.

“Israel knows perfectly about our list of security and defense needs, “ Kuleba said in a statement. “We will be waiting for decisions to be taken.”

He added that there was a solid foundation for building ties, but that the two sides would need to make further decisions about the relationship.

Still, there was plenty of evidence of the broad disagreements between the two countries during Cohen’s visit. Cohen again declined to condemn Russia by name, and Kuleba avoided mentioning Iran.

In comments to Hebrew media, a senior Ukrainian official expressed disappointment over Cohen’s remarks during the visit, noting that Cohen avoided mentioning Russia while visiting Bucha, where Russian forces massacred hundreds.

As the two senior diplomats met, air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv.

Cohen is the most senior Israeli official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded nearly one year ago.

His visit began in Bucha, the Kyiv suburb in which Russian forces slaughtered over 450 civilians last year, and Babyn Yar, the ravine where Nazis and their local collaborators murdered over 30,000 Jews in September 1941.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen lays a wreath at a mass grave of 116 civilians slain by Russians in Bucha, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The visit was apparently not received warmly by the Kremlin, with the state-owned Channel One Russia opening its broadcast with its anchor expressing his dismay over Cohen’s visit to a “Nazi state.”

He said Cohen was meeting with Zelensky, “a Jewish president, who’s also a Nazi.” Such comments from Russian officials have been criticized by Israel and the US in the past.

A day after making a one-day visit to Turkey, Cohen landed in Rzeszów in Poland on Wednesday night, then took an overnight train with his delegation from the Polish border city of Przemysl to Kyiv.

Due to security concerns, the visit was kept under wraps until Cohen arrived in Kyiv.

Cohen also attended a ceremony to officially permanently reopen Israel’s embassy in Kyiv, and met with members of Kyiv’s Jewish community at the Brodsky Synagogue.

The foreign minister is expected to fly back to Israel on Friday morning after another overnight train ride back to Poland.

Cohen was joined by Foreign Ministry Director General Ronen Levy and Simona Halperin, head of the Eurasia desk at the ministry.

Under the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government, Israel sought to maintain a largely neutral stance on the war, keeping channels of communication open with both Moscow and Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have not been shy about their frustration, publicly castigating Israel a number of times for not taking a firmer stance and for refusing to send air defense systems to the country.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) walks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv, February 16, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who praised his predecessors’ position as “prudent,” is expected to pursue a similar path. But the visit by his foreign minister, a Likud ally, is a sign that he wants to at least be perceived as moving the dial in Kyiv’s direction.

Though he is now being welcomed in Ukraine, Cohen angered the country’s leadership in his first week in office last month when he announced that Israel would “speak less” about the war. The comment was interpreted as an indication that the new government would not publicly condemn Russia as Lapid had done.

Cohen also spoke with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that week, before he fielded a call from any Ukrainian officials. Sources in Kyiv initially said they were not sure a conversation would happen at all, but Kuleba and Cohen eventually spoke in mid-January, when the former invited his Israeli counterpart to Kyiv.

With his government coming under fire from Western allies over the recognition of settlements and a proposal to drastically weaken the judiciary, Netanyahu is eager to shore up his bona fides in Europe and the United States. Increasing support for Ukraine – the issue dominating the discussion among NATO and EU policymakers – is sure to gain him some points.

There have been other indications that Israel is open to tilting the scales slightly in Ukraine’s favor. During a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month, Netanyahu expressed a willingness to send “military things” to Kyiv, according to an official with knowledge of the conversation. At the same time, he underscored that he could not go too far without provoking Russia.

He also told Macron that “it is too early to think about mediation,” explaining that he would not push his role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine until Russia, Ukraine, and the US asked him to do so.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the conversation.

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