'Fastest way to the White House is through Kyiv'

Netanyahu looking into Kyiv visit, Foreign Minister Cohen said to tell committee

Prime minister favorably considering invitation to meet Zelensky, envoy says, despite recent harsh criticism from Ukraine against Israel

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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)

At a closed session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is favorably considering an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit Kyiv, according to Hebrew media reports.

“There’s no date, but there’s a good chance that it’ll happen,” Cohen was quoted as saying by the Walla news site.

“The fastest way to the White House is definitely passing through Kyiv,” Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told The Times of Israel on Monday.

US President Joe Biden has publicly kept Netanyahu at arm’s length, and has not invited him to Washington. In March, Biden said Netanyahu would not be invited in the near term, in the context of the ongoing protests in Israel against the government’s plans to remake the judiciary. But a firm show of support to Kyiv by Netanyahu could be rewarded by an invitation to the White House.

President Isaac Herzog is expected to visit the US over the summer and address a joint session of Congress in addition to meeting Biden.

Cohen’s remarks came a day after Ukraine’s embassy released a blistering critique of recent Israeli policies on the Russia-Ukraine war, accusing Jerusalem of choosing “the path of close cooperation” with Moscow.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visits people injured in a terror attack in Tel Aviv at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv. April 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90/File)

Cohen said Korniychuk would be summoned in the coming days for a reprimand.

“Friends criticizing each other is fine,” said Korniychuk, “as long as we reach agreement at the end.”

He said no date has been set for the trip, but he hopes it happens over the summer. “Sooner is better,” Korniychuk said.

Zelensky first extended an informal invitation during a meeting in February with Cohen, who spent a day in Kyiv meeting top Ukrainian officials. The next week, Zelensky reiterated the invitation during an hour-long discussion with Likud MK Yuli Edelstein and National Unity MK Ze’ev Elkin.

Ukraine is asking Israel to speed up the delivery of a civilian early warning system against missile attacks that Jerusalem has promised to provide in lieu of anti-missile defense equipment. The current timeline has the warning system set for deployment in Kyiv in September, but Ukrainian officials grumble that Israelis are not showing a sense of urgency.

Visitors walk through debris in the hall of a health clinic damaged by a missile explosion in Kyiv, on June 1, 2023. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP)

Israel has bucked repeated requests from Ukraine for military support, arguing that it needs to maintain a working relationship with the Kremlin. Russia controls the skies over Syria, in which Israel’s air force operates to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence on its northern border.

In a briefing to reporters on Sunday, Cohen said that “despite the complexities vis-à-vis Russia, Israel has stood by Ukraine’s side since the outbreak of the war until today and has even voted in international fora in favor of condemning Russia.” Cohen added that Israel has sent Ukraine “unprecedented humanitarian aid,” around NIS 80 million (approximately $22 million), with a “higher sum earmarked for this year.”

During his February trip to Ukraine, Cohen was well-received by his counterpart Dmytro Kuleba after pledging $200 million in loan guarantees for healthcare and civilian infrastructure and assistance in developing a smart early warning system.

But Kyiv has grown frustrated as the timeline for deployment of the warning system has been pushed back to September and it has found Israel’s loans difficult to access.

“These guys are taking their time,” said Korniychuk. “They’re not in a war.”

Korniychuk also told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu refused to meet Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska during her visit to Israel last week, sending his wife Sara to meet her instead. The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

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