(Photo credit: APA)
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited the Ukrainian capital Kiev on 16 February and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, reportedly pledging that Tel Aviv would deliver an early-warning system within three to six months.
“Israel supports the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, and we will support the Ukrainian peace initiative that will be presented at the United Nations next week,” Cohen told the Ukrainian leader.
During their one-hour conversation, the two also discussed deepening cooperation between the countries in the face of the “Iranian threat” in the international arena.
According to Israeli media, Cohen offered Zelensky a $200 million loan guarantee for healthcare and civilian infrastructure.
Earlier on Thursday, Cohen met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Cohen is the most senior Israeli official to visit Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February last year.
He planted a tree and laid a wreath at the ravine in Kiev, the site of one of the largest mass murders in the Holocaust, where more than 33,000 Jews were executed in September 1941.
Cohen’s visit was significant, given the rocky relationship between the two countries since the start of the war with Russia a year ago. Ukrainian officials have castigated Israel several times for not taking a firmer stance against Russia and refusing to send air defense systems to Kiev.
Under the previous Israeli government, Israel sought a more neutral stance on the war to protect their illegal operations in Syria, which require coordination with the Kremlin.
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett revealed earlier this year that he tried to negotiate a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine in the first weeks of the war. Bennett claimed that negotiations were yielding fruit and could have ended the fight after a little more than a month but that the NATO governments backing Ukraine ultimately blocked a peace deal.
Bennett’s revelations angered officials in Ukraine, with presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak insisting Bennett’s claims were “fiction” despite additional confirmation from western and Ukrainian sources that a deal to end the war was close, which would have saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers’ lives.
The openly Nazi elements within the Ukrainian government, military, and security services make enthusiastic Israeli support for Kiev in the war with Russia politically difficult for Tel Aviv.
Ukrainian World War II Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, who is viewed as responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, is still revered by many Ukrainians as a nationalist hero, most notably in the west of Ukraine, where far-right nationalist groups have more influence. Statues prominently memorialize the legacy of Bandera in some western Ukrainian cities, including Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk.
The red and black flag of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), symbolizing the blood and soil nationalist ideology traditionally undergirding Nazism, is also often visible in western Ukraine.
In January 2021, Israel’s ambassador Joel Lion condemned a torchlight march in Kiev in memory of Bandera. He stated, “We strongly condemn any glorification of collaborators with the Nazi regime. It is time for Ukraine to come to terms with its past.”
In 2018, the Israeli government faced domestic criticism when more than 40 human rights activists petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding that Israel stop supplying arms to Ukraine.
Israeli daily Haaretz reported that “They argue that these weapons serve forces that openly espouse a neo-Nazi ideology and cite evidence that the right-wing Azov militia, whose members are part of Ukraine’s armed forces, and are supported by the country’s ministry of internal affairs, is using these weapons.”