Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed Sunday in Ukraine, kicking off a two-day trip seen as a bid to drum up support among Russian-speaking voters, ahead of general elections in Israel next month.
Touching down in Kiev, Netanyahu and his wife Sara were greeted with flowers and bread and salt by young Ukrainians clad in traditional outfits. Also welcoming them at the airport was Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former world boxing heavyweight champion.
According to Channel 12, while on board the El Al flight from Tel Aviv, Sara Netanyahu, furious that the captain’s welcome message excluded her, allegedly demanded she be allowed to enter the cockpit but was held back by security guards. After some discussion, the captain again took to the speakers to mention her, the television report said.
The Prime Minister’s Office dismissed the report as “distorted and biased,” saying there had been a “misunderstanding that was immediately clarified.”
Netanyahu’s 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.
He is also the first foreign leader to visit Kiev since President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor with no previous political experience, was elected in April.
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In Kiev, Netanyahu will meet with Zelensky and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, both of whom are Jewish. Ukraine is currently the only country besides Israel where both the president and the prime minister are Jewish.
Netanyahu will also visit a memorial at Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were killed in just two days during the Holocaust, and meet with local Jewish community leaders. Zelensky is set to accompany him to the memorial, which will be the first time a Ukrainian president accompanies an Israeli official to the site.
Netanyahu will also commemorate the victims of the Holodomor, a man-made famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians, and that Kiev has asked Jerusalem to formally recognize as a genocide.
According to unconfirmed reports in the Ukrainian and Russian press, the prime minister will also attempt to mediate between the two countries, which are engaged in a bitter military conflict. Israel has so far stayed neutral, defying Ukraine and many Western allies by refusing to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
More than a third of all immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union hail from Ukraine, which is why many pundits and analysts have posited that Netanyahu was visiting the country less than a month before Israelis head to the polls in an effort to woo them.
Since Moldova-born Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman was blamed for torpedoing Netanyahu’s coalition-building efforts after the last elections, the prime minister’s Likud has actively targeted Russian-speaking voters.
Netanyahu’s trip comes a day after three armed Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops who thwarted an infiltration attempt in the northern Gaza Strip. Earlier Saturday and on Friday night, three rockets were fired at Israel from the coastal enclave. Before departing, Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, said Israel would not hesitate to launch a large-scale military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, even during the peak of election season, if deemed necessary.