In Kyiv, PM vows to advance pensions for Israelis with Ukrainian roots

In Kyiv, PM vows to advance pensions for Israelis with Ukrainian roots

President thanks Israel for backing Ukraine’s territorial integrity after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, though Jerusalem issued no such statement of support

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, hosts PM Netanyahu at his official residence in Kyiv, August 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, hosts PM Netanyahu at his official residence in Kyiv, August 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

KYIV, Ukraine — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, , during a visit to Kyiv Monday, promised to push forward a never-implemented agreement to give Ukrainian immigrants living in Israel access to their pensions from their home country.

Netanyahu is in Ukraine for a two-day trip, where he met with new President Volodymyr Zelensky and announced that Kyiv was considering opening a technology trade and investment office in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said Israel would transmit to Ukraine more information about Israeli immigrants from the Eastern European country who are eligible for pensions, in order to help them start to receive payments.

More than a third of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union hail from Ukraine. In 2014, a bilateral agreement on pensions for Israelis from Ukraine was signed, but it was never implemented.

“This community serves as a human bridge between our countries and it offers immense opportunities to help us develop our ties,” Netanyahu said during a joint press appearance with Zelensky. “I want to thank you for working to advance, in the upcoming parliament, the ratification of the pensions agreement that was signed for these people. You asked to be passed on to you updated information for this purpose — I will definitely do that.”

The meeting came a month before Israelis go to the polls. Avigdor Liberman, one of the Netanyahu’s chief rivals, had campaigned on a promise to help secure pensions for Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel.

Zelensky greeted Netanyahu in Hebrew, saying “Bruchim habaim leUkraina,” and calling his guest “one of the most outstanding politicians of the modern age.” He also thanked Israel “for the continued support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and for the strong position towards the conflict in the Donbass of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.”

Israel has remained neutral in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, refusing to explicitly condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the time, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued a toothless statement expressing the hope the the matter “will be handled through diplomatic means and will be resolved peacefully.”

Zelensky also noted that he and Netanyahu had discussed security matters. “We as a country have something to learn from Israel, especially in the areas of security and defense, and we will of course be doing that,” he said.

Netanyahu is the first foreign leader to visit Kyiv since Zelensky, a former actor with no political experience, was elected in April. The joint press appearance in the capital’s Mariyinsky Palace, Zelensky’s official ceremonial residence, was covered by more than 130 local journalists.

Netanyahu’s two-day 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.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely also participated in the meeting.

“Both our countries are young, but our peoples are ancient,” Netanyahu said, noting that the local Jewish community is 1,300 years old. “We’ve had periods of great splendor in our relations, but we also had periods of unimaginable tragedy,” he noted, adding that hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered on Ukrainian territory “by the Nazis and their collaborators.”

In January, Israel and Ukraine signed a free trade agreement, which Jerusalem said would increase the volume of bilateral trade.

“Israel remains one of Ukraine’s key trading partners in the Middle East,” Zelensky said. “Our total trade turnover exceeded $1 billion. This amount will increase significantly due to the signing of the FTA agreement between Ukraine and Israel, which, I hope, Israel will soon ratify.”

Netanyahu said that the Knesset will vote on the matter after next month’s elections.

Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kyiv’s Park of Eternal Glory. He also placed a small wheat basket at a monument for the victims of the Holodomor, a man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians and others.

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 his press appearance with Netanyahu, Zelensky asked Israel to formally recognize the Holodomor as a genocide.

“Honoring the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, in which more than two million Ukrainian Jews died, Ukraine calls on Israel to also recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people,” he said.

PM Netanyahu places a small wheat basket at a monument the victims of the Holodomor, a man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians and others, Kyiv, August 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Later on Monday, Netanyahu was set to visit a memorial at Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were killed in two days during the Holocaust. Zelensky was set to accompany him to the memorial, which will be the first time a Ukrainian president accompanies an Israeli official to the site.

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, 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 Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is also Jewish. Ukraine is currently the only country besides Israel where both the president and the prime minister are Jewish.

During the last elections Groysman ran with his own party, which failed to cross the electoral threshold, and he is expected to be replaced shortly.

Groysman and Netanyahu will also attend an event for Israeli and Ukrainian businesspeople hosted by Netanyahu at his Kyiv hotel. He is also planning to welcome local Jewish community leaders for a short meeting before heading back to Israel on Tuesday afternoon.

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