The Purpose of Netanyahu’s Visit to Ukraine

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived in Ukraine on an official visit. Most experts claim that the visit is motivated by two points: Israel noted that Ukraine is the only state in the world except Israel itself where the Prime Minister and the President are Jews; Netanyahu has elections on September 17th, and Israel is home to many people from Ukraine.

I think both said reasons for the visit are false. However, the goals named by Netanyahu himself can hardly be considered true either. He, apparently, was going to sign an agreement on a free trade zone, settle humanitarian problems (Banderists started to be denied entry to Israel on a massive basis, and Ukraine periodically send Jews back, preventing them from entering) and, in addition, Zelensky invited him a couple of months ago.

Let’s start with the explanations of the Israeli Prime Minister. It is not necessary to have an in-depth understanding of international relations to understand that the fact of an invitation is far from being a sufficient basis for a visit, and such a hasty one at that. Zelensky hasn’t been president for even a year, he has not yet appointed his government, he invites everyone he can to visit, but Netanyahu is the first foreign leader to honour him with his attention.

The other reasons voiced by Netanyahu are also insufficient for Israel’s Prime Minister (one of the most important players in the Middle East, and on the world stage as a whole) to suddenly rush into Ukraine at a time when his country is in a difficult domestic political and foreign policy situation. A Free Trade Area Agreement could be signed just by the Ambassador, and the issue of the non-admission of Ukrainians to Israel, and Israelis to Ukraine was formally settled by the Declaration on Intensification of Cooperation, which was signed by the Ministers of the Interior of the two countries on July 12th.

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In general, Netanyahu clearly has no reason to be in Kiev. He even laid flowers in front of the monument in Babi Yar to the victims of the Nazi and Banderist predecessors of the current Ukrainian government during his last visit to Ukraine, held 20 years ago, in 1999.

By the way, that visit also took place shortly before the Israeli election, which Netanyahu nevertheless lost. So the expert narrative of him trying in this way to earn additional votes is also collapsing. Moreover, if in 1999 a visit to Ukraine could still have a positive impact on the electoral prospects of the PM’s party, today this is more than doubtful. Many former citizens of Ukraine do live in Israel, but Banderists, to put it mildly, are not liked there. And Netanyahu himself fervently displays posters showing him with Vladimir Putin. If he were putting a stake on Ukraine’s patriots in Israel, such PR would play against him, because they (Ukraine’s patriots) are hostile to Russia and its president. In addition, as was already said, during the visit no extraordinary breakthroughs in bilateral relations are expected, so in Israel few will pay attention to it, and before the election it will be forgotten.

And two Jews being in charge of Ukraine is not a reason for a visit. Anyway, one of them (Zelensky) wants to get rid of the second (Groisman), and the country is ruled by a third (Kolomoisky). Well, and given that the Ukrainian authorities usually beg foreign colleagues for something, then if Netanyahu wanted to support them, he would bring them not a free trade zone (which after being signed should still be ratified), but money and weapons (at least a little bit).

So the purpose of the visit is undoubtedly different. We would not be mistaken if we determine that this goal is directly related to Russia and the situation in the Middle East. Let me remind you that last year Netanyahu visited Vladimir Putin as if he was just going to work, and this year he visited him twice (by the way, on the eve of the April election in Israel).

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It is not difficult to guess that if the Israeli Prime Minister had solved a Russian-related problem, he would have stopped to hurry to Moscow. But so far he hasn’t been able to solve it and he has exhausted his arguments.

It is also clear what this problem is. Moscow is actively involved in resolving the Syrian crisis. Not only does it support Damascus in its fight against rebels, Islamists, and Western interventionists, but it has also been able to make a sufficiently strong – although situational – coalition of Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, which is the coalition that determines the balance of power in the Middle East today. At the same time, Iran is a long-standing enemy of Israel, and relations between Turkey and the Jewish state have been reliably damaged since Israeli special forces attacked the “Freedom Flotilla” that went to break the blockade of Gaza in May 2010. In a collision with the crew and passengers of the ship Mavi Marmara, eight Turkish citizens were killed and one disappeared. Israel’s conflict with Syria has continued since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Tel Aviv captured and annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. Damascus did not recognise the annexation. Nor is it recognised by the UN.

In view of the change in the general balance of forces in the Middle East, Israel, which had taken an active part in fuelling the civil war in Syria and in supporting the Islamist gangs that had terrorised the country, found itself in front of the prospect of a military conflict. Syria has every reason in the near future (after the restoration of control over Idlib and the Kurdish regions) to try to take back the Golan Heights, which Israel used to carry out acts of aggression against that country.

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In seven years of civil war, the Syrian army has gained invaluable combat experience, supported by pro-Iranian groups based in Lebanon. Damascus received the latest armoured vehicles, artillery systems, and air defences from Russia, and Russian military specialists trained Syrians to work with this equipment. In Syria, Russian naval and air bases are permanently deployed, making the military defeat of that country impossible in principle. Tehran will be ready to provide Damascus with all possible assistance, and Turkey will adhere to neutrality. Given that the Israeli army did not win in the last two Lebanese wars (1982 and 2006), the situation as a whole is depressing for Tel Aviv.

The Israeli leadership understands that its way out is to involve Russia as an intermediary. But at the same time Israel does not want to sacrifice anything, taking an inflexible position and refusing to seek a compromise (such could be the voluntary return of the Golan Heights to Syria, while Russia would guarantee its demilitarisation). Moscow is ready to seek a peace agreement with Damascus and Tehran on the basis of compromise, but not at all on the basis of concessions to Israel.

Convinced that it will not be possible to so easily tilt Moscow to its side, Netanyahu is looking for new arguments. He knows that the Ukrainian crisis is sensitive for Russia and shows a readiness to actively work in this direction in order to interest Moscow.

The main purpose of this visit is to get an idea of the abilities and capabilities of Ukrainian partners, and to understand how effective interaction with them can be.

I think that a deep disappointment awaits Netanyahu.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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