'We don't want just a protocol meeting,' official says

Israeli FM must offer ‘substantial aid’ to get meeting with Zelensky – Kyiv official

Jerusalem says sit-down with president during Cohen’s upcoming trip is confirmed, but Ukrainian sources say Israel must offer something new

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

(Left) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference with his Guinea-Bissau counterpart following their talks in Kyiv on October 26, 2022;
(Right) MK Eli Cohen speaks at conference in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
(Left) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference with his Guinea-Bissau counterpart following their talks in Kyiv on October 26, 2022; (Right) MK Eli Cohen speaks at conference in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has not yet decided whether he will meet Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, a Ukrainian official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Cohen is expected to visit Kyiv in the near future, becoming the first foreign minister of a Middle Eastern country to visit the Ukrainian capital since the Russian invasion began nearly a year ago.

The official said that Zelensky wants Israel to offer a tangible show of support for Ukraine. Israel still has not responded to Kyiv’s 2022 request for a $500 million loan, said the official.

Israel has also not moved forward on its offer to help Ukraine with a civilian early warning system either, the official said.

There is no demand for an Israeli condemnation of Russia, said the official, contradicting earlier English-language reports.

“We are expecting a substantial visit,” said the official. “It’s important but we don’t want just a protocol meeting.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, gestures as European Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola, right, applauds during an EU summit at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, February 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

“We must feel substantial aid from our friends, the official said.

However, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel they have been told that the Zelensky meeting is set.

“We are not going to negotiate the substance of the meeting before the actual meeting,” said an Israeli official. “It’s inappropriate.”

Kyiv has repeatedly requested that Israel provide Iron Dome batteries to shoot down incoming rockets, but Israel has balked at providing defensive weaponry to Ukraine for fear of Russian repercussions.

The Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interceptor missiles towards rockets launched by terror groups from the Gaza Strip into Israel, over the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, May 16, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

Israel has sought to maintain a neutral stance on the war, keeping channels open with both Russia and Ukraine. Israel is concerned that arming Ukraine would jeopardize its decade-long campaign in Syria to prevent the entrenchment of Iran on its northern border. Russia, which has advanced air defenses in Syria, has largely refrained from interfering with Israeli airstrikes.

The issue has strained ties between Jerusalem and Kyiv, as the Ukrainians have consistently pressed Israel to provide more defense aid.

Cohen’s anticipated trip would be a counterbalance to recent decisions that Kyiv interpreted as indications that the new Benjamin Netanyahu government would move toward Moscow.

One of Cohen’s first acts after being appointed to his role last month was to hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whom the previous government had openly sparred with. Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk criticized the foreign minister for speaking with the Russian diplomat before contacting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

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, Thursday, April 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Korniychuk asserted that speaking with Lavrov, something no Israeli foreign minister had done since the war began, was evidence of a pro-Russian shift in Jerusalem’s foreign policy.

At the same time, there are indications that Netanyahu 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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