Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu greets supporters in Tel Aviv on election night in April 2019. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Multiple Motives Seen in Netanyahu’s Ukraine Visit

Visit is first by an Israeli prime minister in two decades

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Ukraine, the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister in two decades. During the two-day trip, Netanyahu will be meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, as well as with the country’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is also Jewish. During his stay, Netanyahu will make a stop at Babi Yar, where 30,000 Jews were massacred during the Holocaust.

The visit comes a month after the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, ratified the Free Trade Agreement that Ukraine and Israel signed in January.

There has been speculation that one reason for Netanyahu’s visit is to act as an intermediary between Ukraine and Russia, which is currently occupying Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine that was part of the former Soviet Union.

Some experts have expressed concern that Netanyahu’s visit might damage Russian-Israeli relations, but Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, disagreed.  He told The Media Line, “I don’t believe Netanyahu would visit Ukraine without coordination with Russia. I believe the visit is more complicated than it looks.”

Magen also said he is not concerned about Netanyahu’s intention to visit a memorial dedicated to the millions of Ukrainians who died in the Holodomor famine of 1932-33. The famine was the result of actions taken by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s government and disproportionally affected Ukrainians. Ukraine has asked the international community to recognize the famine as genocide, an action that has not pleased the Russians.

Netanyahu’s visit to the memorial, said Magen, will be “seen as a necessary move, like when a world leader goes to Israel and pays his or her respects at Yad Vashem.”

Israel has not taken a side in the dispute over Crimea, and Netanyahu has a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Netanyahu has visited Russia nine times as prime minister. He visited Ukraine once before his current trip.

In an interview with The Media Line, Peter Dickinson, a Kiev-based fellow with the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine, said Netanyahu’s close ties with Russia is something that Ukraine is willing to overlook.

“Ukrainians are very pragmatic; there is an appreciation of Russia’s strategic importance to Israel,” Dickinson said. “They don’t like it, but they understand it. It’s not a barrier to a relationship.”

Anna Zharova, CEO of the Tel-Aviv based Israeli Ukrainian Alliance, which promotes economic ties between the two countries, told The Media Line, “I know the conflict between Russia and Ukraine really influences the relationship between Ukraine and Israel, with Ukraine often in the shadow.”

Dickinson said Netanyahu could be “laying the groundwork” for the Ukrainian president’s expected visit to Washington next month. He said that while an official date for the trip has not been announced, President Donald Trump has officially invited Zelensky and said he hoped that Ukraine and Russia will make progress towards a peace agreement.

Magen said that both Russia and Ukraine have expressed some willingness to negotiate and so “Netanyahu could act as a go-between for Trump and Putin.”

Dickinson said that if Netanyahu does discuss Crimea during his visit to Ukraine, “I would be surprised if we would have any public announcement about any progress.”

Another reason for the timing of Netanyahu’s visit is the Israeli election on September 17. Experts note that not only does the Israeli population include a sizeable number of immigrants from Ukraine, but a foreign policy success could burnish Netanyahu’s image with the electorate in general.

Zharova said that Israel and Ukraine have a mutually beneficial relationship, with Israeli companies providing Ukraine with assistance in research and development, and Israel receiving agricultural technology from Ukraine.

“I hope this is not only a symbolic visit for the election,” she said. “I hope we can collaborate on governmental, business and NGO levels.”

Magen said the trip “is not only because of the election, but it can help.”

As for the future, Dickinson said that “Ukraine and Israel are natural partners, as Ukraine has a rich Jewish heritage, which is often overlooked. I anticipate the relationship will strengthen as Ukraine becomes more important strategically and modernizes economically.”


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