Netanyahu, Zelensky discuss Uman pilgrimage, as Ukraine deliberates policy

Days before tens of thousands of Israelis descend on Ukrainian holy site, Israel urges Kyiv to ensure worshipers have access amid spike in tensions

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on August 19, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on August 19, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Amid tensions over the upcoming Uman pilgrimage and Israeli ties with Russia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by phone late Thursday.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, they discussed Israeli aid to Ukraine, and the civil alert system Israel is building for Ukraine.

The delivery of the system, promised by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in February, has progressed slower than Kyiv would have liked. It is tentatively slated for initial deployment in October.

Netanyahu also brought up the importance of ensuring that Jewish worshipers heading to Uman for the Rosh Hashanah holiday can reach the city to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic leader who died in 1810. Tens of thousands of worshipers are expected to make the annual journey to Uman.

Netanyahu and Zelensky last spoke in late December as Netanyahu returned to power.

Israeli travel warnings against going to Ukraine during the war are still in effect.

No final decision on Ukraine’s policy toward Israeli pilgrims has been made.

Hours before the call, Ukraine blasted Israel for a film deal it signed with Russia the day before, accusing Jerusalem of “collaboration” and aiding Moscow in spreading its propaganda.

In August, Jerusalem officials reportedly dismissed as baseless a threat by Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel that Kyiv would close its borders to Israeli pilgrims making their way to Uman in retaliation for Israel deporting Ukrainians.

The deportations relate to Ukrainians coming into the country ostensibly as tourists, not as refugees, in cases where Israel suspects they are planning to remain or seek employment illegally.

Jews pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the town of Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Ukraine, September 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“There is no basis for the threats of the ambassador of Ukraine in Israel about [Ukraine] closing its borders ahead of the Rosh Hashanah events in Uman,” an unnamed diplomatic source was quoted as saying at the time by the Ynet news site. “Those in Ukraine’s government who are more senior than [the ambassador] made this very clear to Israeli officials.”

However, a Ukrainian official indicated to The Times of Israel that there were those in Kyiv pushing for an aggressive response to Israel.

The official also said a clear statement by Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel that Ukrainians would be protected would go a long way toward mollifying Ukrainian officials seeking to give Israel a measure of payback.

An Israeli diplomatic source last month accused Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk of inflating numbers regarding deportations of Ukrainian refugees by Israel and claimed this was “not the first time that the ambassador has tried to create a media storm, thus harming the good relations between our countries.”

In a weekly address in August, Zelensky said that the “rights of Ukrainian citizens must be guaranteed,” after receiving a report on how nationals are treated in foreign countries — without explicitly naming Israel.

The next day, Korniychuk made it clear in a statement that Zelensky’s message was directed at Israel.

File: Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk speaks during a conference in Jaffa, June 7, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

“The Ukrainian government will not tolerate the humiliation of its citizens upon entering Israel. We will suspend our bilateral visa waiver deals, according to article seven of the intergovernmental agreement,” Korniychuk warned.

“This possibility is on our government’s table,” he added. “It is unthinkable that we would have to go out of our way to host tens of thousands of Israelis in Uman, with a high-security risk and a huge logistical effort, while the Israeli government abuses our citizens who come to Israel within the framework of a treaty between the two countries.”

“If Israel wants its citizens to be able to come to Ukraine as tourists, including to Uman, I believe Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu should intervene personally to find a solution to the current matter,” he said.

In response, Arbel rejected claims of mistreatment of Ukrainians.

“Israel’s immigration policy welcomes tourists from many countries in the world, including from Ukraine,” he said in a statement. “In instances where there is a suspicion they are using their tourist visa unlawfully to work or settle down, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority [works to prevent this], according to its legal authority.”

He added that Israel had sent medicines to Ukraine, and said that his ministry would continue cooperating with Kyiv in health-related matters.

File: Jewish pilgrims gather in front of Ukrainian border guards at the checkpoint Novaya Guta near Novaya Guta, Belarus, September 18, 2020. (AP Photo)

As part of a bilateral deal, Ukrainians can enter Israel and visit for up to three months. Due to the ongoing war in the country, Israel has extended the three-month visas of non-Jewish refugees; a cap limiting the number permitted to enter was struck down by the High Court of Justice. Those with Jewish roots have automatic rights to become citizens under Israel’s Law of Return.

According to data from the Ukrainian embassy, in the first half of 2023, Israel deported 2,037 Ukrainian citizens, compared to 2,705 for all of 2022, the Ynet news site reported.

Korniychuk told The Times of Israel that around 10 percent of Ukrainian tourists entering the country were being deported.

Illustrative: A Ukrainian serviceman of the State Border Guard Service works in a position in Bakhmut on February 9, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)

Also Wednesday, the US Embassy in Jerusalem shared a State Department message warning American citizens against traveling to Uman, which it said “has been the site of multiple Russian missile attacks as recent as June.”

The State Department’s travel advisory for all of Ukraine is Level 4: Do Not Travel.

“The US Department of State recommends that US citizens do not travel to Ukraine,” read the warning. “This recommendation applies to US citizens considering travel to Uman during Rosh Hashanah for the pilgrimage to the grave of Rebbe Nachman.”

“The US Embassy in Kyiv continues to operate with reduced staffing and has limited capacity to assist US citizens in Ukraine.”

Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Despite travel warnings last year, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Uman.

Those travel warnings are still in effect but are unlikely to deter worshipers.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyiv closed its borders in September to avoid an outbreak ahead of Rosh Hashanah. Thousands of would-be pilgrims traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine but were blocked by local authorities.

Kyiv and Jerusalem have also seen tensions over Israel’s policy on supplying aid to Ukraine. Though it has provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid and is also working on the advance warning system for rockets, Israel has refused to supply weaponry to the country, even if only for defensive purposes, such as missile interception. This is seen as a policy largely aimed at avoiding antagonizing Moscow. Russia currently controls much of Syria’s airspace, where Israel requires freedom to operate in order to prevent Iran and its proxies from entrenching themselves.

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