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In a first since beginning of the war, Israeli foreign minister visits Ukraine, meets with Zelenskyy

“We are here in an important solidarity visit with the Ukrainian people,” Cohen said

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives in Ukraine, Feb. 16, 2023 (Photo: Eli Cohen/Twitter)

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen traveled to Ukraine on Thursday to meet the Ukrainian leadership, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Cohen is the highest-ranking Israeli official to visit the war-torn nation since the Russian invasion n February 2022.

Like many other foreign dignitaries, Cohen and his delegation arrived by train to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv from the Polish border town Przemysl. The Israeli foreign minister arrived with heavy security due to the fragile security situation.

"I have arrived today on the first visit of an Israeli minister to Kyiv since the outbreak of fighting. In the last year, Israel stood by Ukraine and the Ukrainian people," Cohen stated.

The Jewish state’s top diplomat began his visit in Babyn Yar, the infamous site where Nazis and their local Ukrainian collaborators murdered more than 30,000 Jews in September 1941.

Cohen also visited the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where Russian forces last year murdered more than 450 Ukrainian civilians, and paid his respects by laying a wreath at a grave of 116 civilians killed by the Russian military in Bucha. 

“We can say clearly, it is impossible to remain indifferent to the scenes and mass grave that we have seen,” Cohen said.

“We are here in an important solidarity visit with the Ukrainian people,” he added. 

However, Cohen refrained from explicitly condemning Russia, likely due to Israel’s continued need for security coordination with Moscow in order to avoid unintentional confrontation between Russian and Israeli forces operating in Syria. 

The Israeli foreign minister is expected to attend the official reopening of the Israeli embassy in Kyiv. 

“Today, we will hoist the Israeli flag over the Israeli embassy in Kyiv, which will return to regular operations with the aim of strengthening relations between the countries,” Cohen said. Like many other countries, Israel temporarily relocated its Kyiv embassy to neighboring Poland due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

In addition, Cohen is also scheduled to meet members of the local dwindling Jewish community. Some 60.000 Jews immigrated to Israel last year, the largest number in decades. The majority emigrated from Ukraine and Russia at the beginning of the conflict.

With the exception of former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, most senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have largely maintained a position of neutrality in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. The Jewish state needs to maintain ties with both Ukraine and Russia – both homes to sizable Jewish communities. In addition, Russia’s military presence in the Middle East has forced Jerusalem to maintain a workable security coordination relationship with Moscow, especially in Syria. 

However, Ukrainian and Western officials have criticized Israel for its unwillingness to clearly side with Ukraine in the war with Russia. 

An unnamed Ukrainian official recently told The Times of Israel that Ukraine expects support from the Israeli government that is tangible and extends beyond merely symbolic statements. 

“We are expecting a substantial visit. It’s important but we don’t want just a protocol meeting,” said the Ukrainian official. 

“We must feel substantial aid from our friends, he added. 

In June 2022, Ukraine formally asked Israel for a $500 million loan to boost its struggling economy. 

At the time, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk stressed that half a billion dollars is a manageable amount for the Jewish state, whose annual GDP is approximately $500 billion. 

"This is not a large sum for the State of Israel. I hope that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will consider it positively," Korniychuk said at the time.

However, the former Bennett government did not respond to the Ukrainian loan request and it is unclear whether the current Netanyahu government will approve it. 

The United States and other Western nations have increased their pressure on Israel to provide more assistance to Ukraine. At the same time, Russia has warned Israel against providing military equipment to Ukraine. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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