Prime Minister Netanyahu visits Ukraine By Natalia Datskevych, Matthew Kupfer. Published Aug. 18. Updated Aug. 18 at 11:29 pm

in run-up to Israeli elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu visits Ukraine

By Natalia Datskevych, Matthew Kupfer.
Published Aug. 18. Updated Aug. 18 at 11:29 pm
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watches honour guards passing by during a welcoming ceremony before the talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Aug. 19, 2019, in Kyiv.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will pay an official visit to Ukraine on Aug. 19 and meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, the first such trip by the Israeli head of state in 20 years.

That last Israeli prime minister to visit was also Netanyahu in 1999, at the tail end of his first term as prime minister.

This time, Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive on Aug. 18. He will take part in a series of meetings and ceremonies on Aug. 19 and depart the next day.

Officially, the first event on the schedule in Kyiv is signing agreements between the two countries at Mariinsky Palace.

After that, during the afternoon of Aug. 19, Netanyahu and Zelensky are scheduled to commemorate the victims of Babyn Yar, one of the largest World War II-era mass graves where Nazi German forces and local collaborators killed more than 34,000 Kyiv Jews and others during a two-day period in 1941.

However, many observers have suggested that Netanyahu’s visit — which comes just a month before repeat parliamentary elections in Israel on Sept. 17 — offers him benefits beyond simply improving bilateral ties. This has led to much speculation about the trip’s significance, both in Ukraine and in Israel.

Political calculation

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the leader of the right-wing Likud political party.

With elections fast approaching on the home front, his visit to Ukraine is also a shrew political move, according to Sergiy Korsunsky, director of the Hennadii Udovenko Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine and the country’s former ambassador to Turkey.

Currently, Netanyahu finds himself in a difficult position in Israel. He is under criminal indictment for bribery and fraud in several cases, charges that he dismisses as politically motivated. He also preparing for a challenging battle in the upcoming elections.

During the April 9 parliamentary election in Israel, Likud tied with Blue and White, a newly formed centrist party, for first place in the vote. Each received 35 seats in the 120-member Israeli legislature, the Knesset.

However, Netanyahu failed to form a majority government in time, throwing Israel into yet another round of elections — something the country had not experienced in 71 years of its existence.

The main obstacle to building the coalition was Avigdor Lieberman, a Moldova-born politician whose party, Yisrael Beiteinu, split from Likud in 1999. The party largely represents the interests of right-wing, secular Russian-speaking Israelis.

Yisrael Beiteinu refused to back Netanyahu to form a majority in the Knesset. Lieberman wanted the incumbent prime minister to back a controversial bill that would require ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews to undergo national military service like other Israelis. Currently, they are not required to serve in the army.

But Netanyahu refused to agree to those terms. As a result, Israel will return to the polls on Sept. 17.

“He is now quite resolved to get back to power,” said Korsunsky in an interview with UA.tv on Aug. 16.

But, now Netanyahu finds himself under more pressure. On Aug. 18, Lieberman announced that Israel Beiteinu would sign an agreement to share surplus votes — those which are not enough for a full parliamentary seat — with Blue and White. That appears to suggest that he is determined to oppose the prime minister, even by cooperating with a more moderate party.

One of Netanyahu’s possible paths to victory is enlisting the support of religious parties, such as the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism or the Shas party, Korsunsky suggests. Both are members of the current coalition.

Ukraine is potentially an important country for these parties’ supporters. Every year, tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews fly to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov — an important religious leader — in the city of Uman, some 200 kilometers south of Kyiv.

“For Bibi (Netanyahu), it’s very important to show to Orthodox Jews that he cares about them,” Korsunsky said.

But not everyone agrees with that assessment.

“It is unlikely that most Orthodox voters in Israel care about Netanyahu’s Kyiv trip,” said Sam Sokol, a Jerusalem-based journalist who writes about religious issues and recently published a book on the Jews of Ukraine. “Observant Israelis care about domestic religious concerns.”

Additionally, at least one million of Israel’s 8.7 million citizens are repatriates from Ukraine who could potentially react positively to Netanyahu’s visit to Kyiv.

“It’s quite important to show that he cares about Ukraine,” Korsunsky said.

Hot topics to discuss

There are several key issues in Israeli-Ukrainian relations that Zelensky and Netanyahu could discuss in their meeting.

The two countries have a visa-free regime with one another. However, Israel has frequently denied entry to Ukrainian citizens, fearing an influx of illegal migrants. In February and March, each country denied entry to several groups of tourists from the other. This was widely viewed as escalating retaliation against one another.

At the time, there was even discussion that Ukraine could exit the visa-free agreement.

However, in May, Israeli Ambassador Joel Lion told the Kyiv Post that the threat had not been serious and that both countries were working to resolve the issue. In July, Israel and Ukraine signed a “declaration of increased cooperation” and agreed to create a working group between their law enforcement agencies to help fight the illegal employment of Ukrainians in Israel.

Netanyahu and Zelensky are also expected to hold negotiations on trade relations between their countries. Netanyahu explained as much himself before departing for Kyiv.

“I plan to discuss with the president the creation of a free trade zone, pension agreements, and other issues that will further strengthen the wonderful relations between our states,” he said.

Israel and Ukraine signed a free trade agreement on Jan. 21, during former President Petro Poroshenko’s official state visit to Jerusalem.

The Ukrainian parliament has ratified the agreement and Zelensky signed it into law on Aug. 7. Ratification has been delayed in Israel until a new parliament is elected.

Mediation help?

Perhaps the most interesting subject possibly on the agenda is the idea of Israel serving as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and invaded its eastern Donbas region.

On Aug. 13, the Times of Israel reported that Netanyahu’s visit was part of an attempt by the United States to end the war through behind-the-scenes negotations. However, the source for this information was itself a thinly-sourced article in the Russian Nasha Versia newspaper.

Then, the next day, Ukraine’s RBC news site reported — citings an unnamed insider source — that Ukraine wanted Israel’s help as an intermediary in freeing Ukrainians held prisoner by Russia.

Such an approach is not unprecedented in Ukraine’s recent history. In 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan interceded with Putin to secure the release of Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov.

In some ways, Netanyahu fits a similar profile to Erdogan that would made him a useful intermediary. Like Turkey, Israel has working relations with Russia. Last May, Netanyahu visited Moscow to participate in the Victory Day parade marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. In recent years, many Western leaders have avoided attending the parade due to deteriorating relations with Moscow.

However, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu would want (or be able) to mediate with Russia — particularly when his continued role as prime minister is far from guaranteed.

Still another political explanation of Netanyahu’s visit may be more straightforward: the Israeli leader wants to present himself as a statesman before elections.

Netanyahu has certainly driven this message home in campaign ads. The headquarters of the Likud party in Tel Aviv features three giant banners covering six floors of the building. They show Netanyahu shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, Putin, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“That’s to show Israel that this prime minister is not just a prime minister, but somebody who can handle the two biggest and most important countries for Israel,” said Korsunsky, referring to Russia and the United States.

Journalist Sokol agrees with this assessment.

“Netanyahu’s trip appears to be aimed at shoring up his image as a statesman operating on an international level,” he told the Kyiv Post. “He is also probably reaching out to a segment of the contested Russian-speaking demographic in Israel that he believes can be swayed by such political theater.”

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