Analysis | My friend, my foe. How and why Israel is destroying relations with Ukraine

My friend, my foe. How and why Israel is destroying relations with Ukraine - Photo
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Benjamin Netanyahu (collage - Daryna Dmytrenko/LIGA.net)
16.08.2023, 12:00

Ukraine not only lacks air defense and weapons from Israel. Diplomatic reciprocity, deportations, and visa-free travel are other points of friction.

Prime ministers in Israel change, but this has on effect on communication. Such was President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's assessment of relations with Israel about a month ago.

In recent days, two issues receiving heightened media focus have been Jerusalem's role in the Ramstein defense talks and visa-free travel for Israeli Hasidic pilgrims. However, these are not the only pertinent topics.

"I was sure that Israel would change its position after it became known about Russia's more active cooperation with Iran," Ukraine's Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk tells LIGA.net. "Prime Minister Netanyahu also promised to review his policy on arms sales. But this is not happening... I am also very hurt by the deportations of Ukrainians."

LIGA.net analyzed the relationship between Ukraine and Israel since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion. The analysis sought to understand the issues that have arisen between the two countries and explore potential avenues to resolve challenges in their relationship.

RAMSTEIN AND WEAPONS

According to a Kyiv Post source in the National Security and Defense Council, Ukraine allegedly wants to exclude Israel from the Ramstein group. Kyiv fears that Israel is actually collecting information for its own use, the newspaper writes. It also fears that this data could end up with the Russians.

The LIGA.net editorial board tried to confirm or deny the possibility of excluding Israel from the Ramstein format.

Ambassador Korniychuk says that he does not have all the information about Ramstein because it is the domain of the military. But he assures LIGA.net that the possibility of excluding Israel was not discussed at a recent meeting of Ukrainian diplomats in Uzhhorod.

LIGA.net's source in the Defense Ministry also says that it has no information about the intention to exclude Israel from Ramstein.

The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

The leak about the possibility of such a scenario could be a manifestation of pressure or a warning, Ihor Semyvolos, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told LIGA.net. Or even a manifestation of irritation over Israel's virtually ineffective role in Ramstein.

"Such publications can be a lever of pressure," agrees Emil Shleymovich, editor-in-chief of the Israeli portal Detaly. "But it seems to me that this is more likely a manifestation of Zelenskyy's and his entourage's irritation.

Israel is a part of Ramstein, in particular, because of the presence of Israeli technology in the weapons of various states, Shleymovich recalls in a comment to LIGA.net. The real goal of Jerusalem may be an attempt to ensure that its weapons do not end up in Ukraine, Semyvolos reasons.

Israel provides medical and humanitarian aid and promised radars to warn of missile attacks. There were also reports of intelligence cooperation.

"But neither I nor the leadership of our state is aware of any Israeli supplies of weapons or ammunition for the needs of the Ukrainian army," Korniychuk says.

Ukraine has asked Israel for more advanced air defense systems. Instead, it heard various excuses: from fears that the technology could fall into the hands of Israel’s enemies to arguments that Israel itself needs the systems, which are surrounded by enemies and are not a NATO member.

But in reality, Israel does sell weapons to other countries. For example, the David’s Sling anti-aircraft missile system was sold to Finland.

"Israel also sells weapons to Germany, Morocco, and other countries. The demand for Israeli products has increased during the war," says the ambassador. "Why are they afraid to give us weapons? The only legitimate argument, in my opinion, is that Israel is sensitive to its own security. And they have Russia on their borders."

Russia may not only rely on its own forces to interfere with Israel's operations in Syria, Shleymovich says. It can also pump weapons into anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and so on.

Jerusalem is taking this methodology into account, admits Israeli journalist Shleymovich. But this is no reason to bow to the Kremlin.

"Russia in Syria depends on Israel no less than Israel depends on Russia," adds Shleymovich, "So all of Netanyahu's arguments justifying the fact that Israel does nothing for Ukraine are nothing more than a search for excuses. If there was a political desire, he would do it."

VISA WAIVER AND SECURITY OF THE HASIDIM

Ukraine continues to look for arguments to convince Israel to provide air defense. The fall brings a new trump card – tens of thousands of Jews are expected to traditionally come to Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

The message of Ukrainian diplomacy is to help protect at least them.

"We have voiced the following position: Israel has repeatedly refused to sell air defense systems to protect Ukrainian civilians, but it may want to protect its pilgrims," says Ambassador Korniychuk. "This position was well received by the Israeli press. But we have not received any response."

Despite warnings from the Ukrainian authorities about the danger, about 23,000 Hasidim came to Uman last year. Even more are expected this year.

My friend, my foe. How and why Israel is destroying relations with Ukraine

At a meeting of ambassadors in Uzhhorod, the participants discussed the possible suspension of tourist visa-free travel with Israel, Korniychuk says, to bring the situation under control. There are several arguments in favor of such a decision.

Security. Last year, Russians shelled Uman before and after Rosh Hashanah. Provocations are possible this year as well. 

"I don't rule out a situation in which the Russians can launch several missiles at a crowd of people and then say that it was done by Ukrainians," the diplomat explains. Look what happened in Dnipro last night. We can't even protect all the big cities."

Dispersion of forces. To ensure order during the pilgrimage, significant forces of police, border guards, and rescuers will have to be diverted, the ambassador says. In addition, Israel stopped sending its police to help since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Bans. Mass gatherings are prohibited under martial law in Ukraine.

The decision to suspend the visa waiver should not even be made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Korniychuk adds. It should be made by the highest political leadership at the government level.

Speaking to LIGA.net, Israeli diplomats call the issue of visa waiver "another, obviously doomed attempt to put pressure on Israel before the pilgrimage to Uman." They are confident that Ukraine will not cancel the visa-free travel: "We need to solve existing problems, not create new ones."

The Hasidic issue can indeed create domestic political pressure in Israel, says Shleymovich. The pilgrimage to Uman is important to the electorate of the Orthodox parties in Israel's ruling coalition – but not enough to tip the scales in favor of handing over air defense systems.

"The threat of visa-free travel is more effective... This is the right step, although it is quite harsh," the journalist argues. "As an Israeli, I don't like it. But frankly, Israel deserves it."

DEPORTATIONS AND HUMANITARIAN ISSUES

Reciprocity is an important argument in the visa waiver issue, Korniychuk says. Israel asks for green corridors for Hasidim, but has begun to deport Ukrainians arriving in the country many times more often.

At the beginning of the full-scale war, Israel actually introduced electronic visas for Ukrainian refugees, but they were canceled in court, the diplomat says. Now people are turned away at the border on formal grounds: even if they have a return ticket, a booked hotel, etc. And it's mostly women and children.

"The procedure by which our citizens are allowed to cross the border is humiliating. People's passports are taken away, they have to wait for more than 10 hours," says Ambassador Korniychuk. "More than 10% of our citizens are now being deported at airports. People are sleeping on the floor, women and children... It hurts me, the situation is outrageous."

LIGA.net had the opportunity to read the complaints that Ukrainians submitted to diplomats. They describe the rudeness and threats of officers, detention at the airport with children for up to several days, spending the night on chairs, documents and phones being taken away, personal correspondence being read, and more.

My friend, my foe. How and why Israel is destroying relations with Ukraine

My friend, my foe. How and why Israel is destroying relations with Ukraine

My friend, my foe. How and why Israel is destroying relations with Ukraine

Ukrainian diplomats receive no explanation as to why this is happening, Korniychuk says. Israeli colleagues argue that this is a matter exclusively for the Migration Service, which is subordinate to the Interior Ministry.

"And the Interior Ministry is headed by a politician from a religious nationalist party," says the ambassador. "Ukrainians are a so-called risk group."

To try to remedy the situation, Ukrainian citizens and local human rights activists, with the support of the embassy, are filing lawsuits. One of the victories is the July 11 decision of the Tel Aviv Court. The court set a precedent that prohibits Interior Ministry officials from seizing and viewing cell phones from people entering Israel.

"Litigation is essentially an established tactic in diplomatic practice," Korniychuk says.

There was also a recent scandal over the cancellation of health insurance for refugees from Ukraine, which was the result of uncoordinated actions by Israeli ministries. 

After talks with his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba assured that the problem would be resolved in the near future. Korniychuk predicts that insurance will be restored this week.

"The Israeli bureaucracy is more complicated than Goethe's Faust," adds Semyvolos. "Ukrainian society was too fascinated by Israel as a model. In fact, we were fed the myth of Israel."

ON PAR WITH ORBAN?

Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Kyiv remains a sensitive issue. Zelenskyy invited him back in the fall of 2022, but he never came.

Ukrainian diplomacy is working on this, Korniychuk assures. For example, Netanyahu has not yet received an invitation to the White House, and the Ukrainian embassy published a thesis that the way to Washington is through Kyiv: "This comment went well, it was picked up by the Western media, and they laughed. But Netanyahu never made it to Kyiv. We are working on it."

In fact, the main obstacle to Netanyahu's visit to the White House is his attempt to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, Shleymovich believes. This is perceived as an attempt to limit democracy itself.

"I don't think that his visit to Kyiv would change the attitude of Americans towards him," the Israeli journalist said.

Netanyahu remains one of the few leaders of countries close to the West who have not yet visited Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Another such leader is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Comparison with Orban is absolutely adequate, Shleymovich reasons, as a person who takes certain steps against democracy and whose coalition partners allow themselves to make homophobic statements, etc.

However, even if Netanyahu's visit to Kyiv does take place, there are doubts about its effectiveness, Semyvolos concludes: "The problem is not that he cannot come. No one needs a visit for the sake of a visit. But to come empty-handed is not a good practice nowadays."

Marko Syrovoi
Marko Syrovoi
LIGA.net correspondent
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