Interview'Our food security depends to a great extent on Ukraine'

Kyiv envoy urges Israelis to leave, warns rescue flights might not be possible

Diplomats working furiously to help Israelis out of Ukraine before threatened war with Russia; they also note Israel could suffer, with Ukraine a major supplier of wheat

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky (left) speaks with Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman at his office in Kyiv, on February 15, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Israel's Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky (left) speaks with Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman at his office in Kyiv, on February 15, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

KYIV, Ukraine — Israelis should not count on rescue flights to get them out of Ukraine in case of war, Israel’s envoy in Kyiv Michael Brodsky said Tuesday, urging them to leave before it’s too late.

“There might be a situation where no one will be able to be rescued from here, you might have to go to the west and cross the border to Poland or Romania,” he said, speaking to the Times of Israel from his office on Tuesday. “In this case, it means it’s already a state of emergency and the whole country will go to the west. It will be a nightmare.”

There are still around ten thousand Israelis in the country, he estimated, mostly in Kyiv, but also in Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odessa, and Uman, a city that has turned into an important Hasidic pilgrimage site.

“Uman always attracts Israelis, no matter what,” said Yoav Bistritsky, deputy head of mission.

About 6,500 Israelis have registered with the embassy through an online link.

“I would prefer the pace to be higher,” said the Saint Petersburg-born Brodsky. “At the moment, it’s not bad. I think people have digested the situation. More than 2,000 have already left.”

The diplomats and their colleagues at the embassy are working nearly around the clock to help Israelis leave the country if they want to. Both men have been getting only four hours of sleep a night.

Flights on Israeli airlines are now nearly full, Brodsky said. A direct flight was added from Kharkiv in order to bring back students, mostly Arab Israelis, who are studying in the city.

Travelers wait at the the departures board ahead of their flights at the Boryspil airport some 30 kilometers (some 18 miles) outside Kyiv on February 13, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky / AFP)

According to Brodsky, Ukrainian universities were initially unwilling to make concessions for Israeli students who decided to evacuate and requested permission to attend lectures online. The students asked the embassy to intercede with the schools and Ukraine’s Education Ministry, and the matter was eventually sorted out.

‘Common practice’

The embassy staff, which usually numbers five diplomats in addition to local staff and security personnel, is keeping up with the pace of consular requests, especially after reinforcements arrived on Monday.

“Whoever comes will get service,” said Brodsky.

Around 50 people showed up in person on Monday for consular services, with dozens more submitting requests online. Israelis are urgently trying to register newborn babies, renew travel documents, have their COVID-19 vaccination status recognized, and even arrange for their pets’ travel.

However, there has been no spike in applications for immigration.

A temporary consular office in the western city of Lviv is expected to open Wednesday, said Brodsky. The office will be located in a building owned by Israel’s honorary consul-general in the city.

Opening the office is less of a departure from norms than it may seem, said Bistritsky. The embassy does so every September in order to accommodate the masses of Israel pilgrims making their way to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s grave in Uman for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

Yoav Bistritsky, deputy head of mission in Kyiv, speaks to Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (Times of Israel)

“For us, opening up another office is sort of common practice,” he said.

Bistritsky’s wife and children flew back to Israel on Sunday, he said, and are attending Zoom classes at Kyiv’s International School. Diplomats with younger children will have to find kindergartens and daycare for them in Israel.

The embassy is not leading the efforts to prepare for a potential evacuation of tens of thousand of Ukrainian Jews. That complicated operation would be handled primarily by the Nativ Liaison Bureau, the Jewish Agency, American Jewish organizations, and even some Christian groups. The embassy, said Brodsky, is focused on helping Israelis.

In addition to staying in close contact with other foreign diplomats, said Bistritsky, he is busy handling tasks like speaking to Ukraine’s State Aviation Administration to ensure there are enough slots for Israeli flights.

Brodsky, 49, spoke to Jewish community leaders, who told him on Sunday that they are staying put. He said he got the sense that they aren’t especially happy about the distinction Israel is making between Israeli citizens and noncitizens within the community.

At the meeting, leaders requested more guidance on security preparation, and some communities have begun stocking extra food in case the situation deteriorates.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures during joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following the talks at The Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Brodsky’s phone rang incessantly during the interview. One of the calls was made by Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, who asked for a detailed update from the ambassador.

Israel’s ‘strategic reserve’

Brodsky said that Ukraine recognizes that Israel has to take its close relationship with Russia into account before making any decisions around Ukraine. “On one hand, they know and understand; on the other hand they are not going to just accept it. They try to pressure us in some ways so that we support them more.”

That pressure mostly comprises conversations between officials, said Brodsky.

“When I met with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky, when I submitted my letter of credence, he brought up that he is Jewish and that he would expect more support from Israel in all sorts of areas.”

But, Brodsky insisted, Israel has been quite supportive of Ukraine, including voting with Kyiv at the United Nations on resolutions having to do with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“We are helping where we can,” he said. “We’ve helped them a lot, and we will continue to do so.”

A pro-European Union activist shouts a slogan during a rally in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 12, 2014 during the Maidan Revolution. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Brosky pointed out a trauma center that Israel is building near the Russian-occupied Donbas region, and COVID-19 aid.

In light of the conflict with Russia, Ukraine will be looking to Israel for a new reason, said Brodsky. It wants to learn how to live and prosper as a country under ongoing military threats. “They are actually speaking about how they need to learn from our experience, how can they live in a situation of drawn-out military conflict and develop their state, their economy, their high-tech.”

If war does break out, warned Brodsky, Israel is sure to suffer. More than half of Israel’s wheat imports come from Ukraine, he said, the supply of which would be badly interrupted in a war. Along with Russia, 80% of Israel’s wheat comes from the region.

Ukraine would be hard-pressed to provide Israel other vital foodstuffs as well. At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Israel suffered an egg shortage, and Ukrainian poultry farmers bailed Israeli consumers out.

Screen capture from video of eggs on pallets ahead of their airlift to Israel, April 6, 2020. (Twitter)

“Our food security depends to a great extent on Ukraine,” Brodsky said.

And not only Israel. Many of the country’s neighbors also rely to a large extent on Ukrainian and Russian wheat. If it is too expensive or unavailable, some experts warn of a second Arab Spring protest movement across the region.

The tensions on the border have thrown off Brodsky’s plans for this year, when he expected to mark 30 years of Israel-Ukraine ties with a series of events in public diplomacy, culture, and business.

“I can’t plan anything right now,” he said. “We’ve put everything on hold.”

In addition, the Israel-Ukraine free trade agreement came into effect only in January, and it will not be fully utilized while the threat of Russian invasion still looms over the country.

Despite that threat, Brodsky said he has felt tension among the residents of Kyiv only in the past 48 hours. Streets are quieter, he said, and there is noticeably less traffic. “But still, people are living normally, you don’t see any preparations. Stores, restaurants are full.”

But Brodsky’s friends with the means to do so are leaving or sending their families abroad. “A lot of people decided this is a good time for vacation,” he said.

No matter how the current situation ends, said Brodsky, Israel will have to expand its aid to Ukraine.

“Israel can and should aid Ukraine, and that’s what it will do,” he promised.

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