Is­raeli am­bas­sador: Free trade agree­ment with Ukraine her­alds grow­ing con­nec­tions

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY MATTHEW KUPFER [email protected]

It’s an event years in the mak­ing.

Over the week­end, Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko will travel to Jerusalem on an of­fi­cial visit.

Then on Jan. 21, in the pres­ence of Poroshenko and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, Ukrainian Econ­omy Min­is­ter Stepan Ku­biv and his Is­raeli coun­ter­part, Eli Co­hen, will sign a free trade agree­ment between their coun­tries.

The deal is ex­pected to yield ma­jor ben­e­fits for both coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to Joel Lion, Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to Ukraine, who will also be in Jerusalem for the sign­ing. But be­yond in­creas­ing trade, the agree­ment also demon­strates grow­ing ties between two coun­tries with a com­pli­cated his­tor­i­cal le­gacy.

“We see one an­other as a re­li­able ally,” Lion told the Kyiv Post in an in­ter­view at the Is­raeli Em­bassy in Kyiv on Jan. 16.

New ef­forts

Ukraine and Is­rael have been ne­go­ti­at­ing a free trade agree­ment for seven years. Ac­cord­ing to Lion, the chal­lenges of such agree­ments are near uni­ver­sal: in ev­ery coun­try, seg­ments of the mar­ket usu­ally op­pose open­ing up to goods from an­other coun­try free of tax.

“Any free trade agree­ment is, in the end, the po­lit­i­cal will to have it,” Lion says. “This po­lit­i­cal will came two years ago.”

He cred­its both coun­tries’ lead­er­ship for tak­ing the ini­tia­tive.

Poroshenko and Ne­tanyahu as well as Ukrainian Prime Min­is­ter Volodymyr Groys­man and Is­raeli Ecol­ogy Min­is­ter Ze’ev Elkin — a Kharkiv-born politi­cian who heads the Is­raeli side of the in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion com­mis­sion — pushed their na­tions’ bu­reau­crats to reach a deal.

Cur­rently, the trade vol­ume between Ukraine and Is­rael stands at a pal­try $800,000, al­though it has in­creased in re­cent years. With the sign­ing of the free trade agree­ment, this num­ber should grow fur­ther.

Ukraine is an agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial pow­er­house. Agri­cul­tural goods al­ready make up over 60 per­cent of Ukraine’s ex­ports to Is­rael. The new agree­ment will open the Is­raeli mar­ket for Ukrainian grain, seeds, and met­als.

Mean­while, Ukraini­ans can hope to soon find what Lion terms "the good stuff" — ripe avo­ca­dos, sweet per­sim­mons and dates, and wine from Is­rael — on the shelves of their lo­cal su­per­mar­kets. In­dus­try will gain bet­ter ac­cess to Is­raeli rub­ber and plas­tic. And Ukrainian hos­pi­tals will in­creas­ingly be able to pur­chase high-qual­ity Is­raeli med­i­cal equip­ment.

“All these things to­gether… help to lower the cost of liv­ing in both coun­tries, by hav­ing more com­pe­ti­tion, by hav­ing prod­ucts that are cheaper,” Lion says. “On the other hand, it in­creases the qual­ity of life.”

For ex­am­ple, by abol­ish­ing taxes on high-qual­ity Is­raeli med­i­cal equip­ment, more Ukrainian hos­pi­tals will be able to pur­chase it and in­crease the qual­ity of med­i­cal care in the coun­try, Lion says.

Tech bridge

Ukraine is not sim­ply any other coun­try for Is­rael.

It is also one of the cen­ters of Eastern Euro­pean Jewry and the birth­place of the re­li­gious move­ment of Ha­sidism. The cos­mopoli­tan city of Odesa, on the shores of the Black Sea, was at one time home to peo­ple like Is­raeli na­tional poet Hayim Nah­man Bia­lik; Ze’ev Jabotin­sky, leader of Re­vi­sion­ist Zion­ism; and Meir Dizen­goff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor. Jewish cul­ture is an in­ex­tri­ca­ble part of the cul­ture of old Kyiv and Odesa.

To­day, Ukraine re­mains a key tourist des­ti­na­tion for re­li­gious Is­raelis who make pil­grim­ages to cities like Medzhy­bizh, where the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Ha­sidism, lived and is buried, and Uman, where his great-grand­son Rabbi Nach­man, founder of the Breslov Ha­sidic dy­nasty, is buried.

Is­rael and Ukraine es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions right af­ter the lat­ter’s in­de­pen­dence in 1991. Peo­ple-to-peo­ple ties between the coun­tries are also strong. Dur­ing the late Soviet and early in­de­pen­dence pe­ri­ods, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ukrainian Jews made aliyah to Is­rael. Count­less other Is­raelis have roots in Ukraine.

As a re­sult, Ukraini­ans and Is­raelis also have a sim­i­lar men­tal­ity, Lion be­lieves. This has helped spur in­no­va­tive co­op­er­a­tion between the two coun­tries.

Is­rael is widely known as a tech­nol­ogy hub. Mean­while, in Ukraine, the IT sec­tor is rapidly grow­ing, and the coun­try pro­duces many highly qual­i­fied pro­gram­mers.

“You have very skilled peo­ple here fin­ish­ing the univer­si­ties, look­ing for jobs all around. In­stead of of­fer­ing them jobs abroad, Is­raeli com­pa­nies are of­fer­ing them jobs here in Ukraine,” Lion says.

Lion es­ti­mates that 11,000 soft­ware en­gi­neers across Ukraine are work­ing for Is­raeli com­pa­nies. With over 2 mil­lion Rus­sian speak­ers and around 250,000 Ukrainian speak­ers in Is­rael, plenty of English-speak­ers in Ukraine, and six flights a day between the two coun­tries, hir­ing Ukraini­ans has be­come a work­able so­lu­tion to Is­raeli firms’ staffing needs.

“These en­gi­neers are get­ting a salary that is higher than the av­er­age salary they would re­ceive from a lo­cal cor­po­ra­tion,” Lion says. “On the (other) hand, they are leav­ing the money here. They are spend­ing the money in Ukraine.”

Ad­dress­ing his­tory

For all the ties between Ukraine and Is­rael, the two coun­tries’ his­tory is hardly sim­ple. Ukraine has his­tor­i­cally been a site of pogroms and vi­o­lence against its Jewish com­mu­nity.

Dur­ing World War II, some Ukraini­ans col­lab­o­rated with the Nazi oc­cu­pants, who an­ni­hi­lated Ukraine’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion. And Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists, both in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nazis and in­de­pen­dently, en­gaged in eth­nic cleans­ing of lo­cal Jewish and Pol­ish pop­u­la­tions.

To­day, Ukraine rec­og­nizes na­tion­al­ists like Stepan Ban­dera and Ro­man Shukhevych, whom his­to­ri­ans have im­pli­cated in vi­o­lence against Jews, as he­roes.

The is­sue is not just the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of these fig­ures, but also ef­forts to re­vise his­tory and “turn per­pe­tra­tors into sav­iors” of Jews, says Sam Sokol, a Jerusalem-based jour­nal­ist whose book “Putin’s Hy­brid War and the Jews” will be pub­lished this year by the In­sti­tute for the Study of Global An­tisemitism.

At the same time, Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda has fre­quently used ac­cu­sa­tions of Nazism and anti-Semitism in ef­forts to dele­git­imize the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment which came to power af­ter the 2014 EuroMaidan Revo­lu­tion. This makes the is­sue of his­tor­i­cal mem­ory in Ukraine par­tic­u­larly del­i­cate and dif­fi­cult to ad­dress.

Since be­com­ing Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to Ukraine in Oc­to­ber, Lion has taken a stronger pub­lic stance on this is­sue than his pre­de­ces­sor. In De­cem­ber, he harshly crit­i­cized the city of Lviv’s de­ci­sion to de­clare 2019 the year of Ban­dera, calling fig­ures like him “his­tor­i­cally a hor­ror for the Jews.”

How­ever, he presents his crit­i­cism as based upon friend­ship with Ukraine.

“We have to make a (dis­tinc­tion) between when you have a gen­uine sen­si­tive ques­tion and a pro­pa­ganda ques­tion,” Lion says. “In this case, Is­rael has a gen­uine sen­si­tive ques­tion. We are ask­ing our Ukrainian friends to un­der­stand the sen­si­tiv­i­ties of the Jewish peo­ple.”

The is­sue is also per­sonal for Lion. Mem­bers of his fam­ily, who hailed from Ukraine’s western Gali­cia re­gion, were mur­dered dur­ing the war in Kami­anets-Podil­sky, to­day a city of roughly 100,000 peo­ple 440 kilo­me­ters to the west of Kyiv.

Lion stresses that many or­di­nary Jews felt that their Ukrainian neigh- bors be­trayed them. The dis­tinc­tion between Nazi SS of­fi­cers, mem­bers of the Ukrainian Aux­il­iary Po­lice for­ma­tion set up by the Nazis, and fight­ers for Ukrainian in­de­pen­dence is largely lost on the Holo­caust’s sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies.

He hopes that Ukraine will take a more nu­anced view of its his­tory.

“Of course, you can choose who­ever you want to be your hero, but teach ev­ery facet of the per­son­al­ity,” he says. “Not only one part of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. It is im­por­tant that the whole his­tor­i­cal fig­ure will be put through to the pub­lic.”

Next steps

Af­ter the free trade agree­ment is signed, it will need to be rat­i­fied by both the Verkhovna Rada and the Is­raeli Knes­set. That could take sev­eral months in Is­rael, where the coali­tion gov­ern­ment de­cided in De­cem­ber to dis­perse the par­lia­ment. Early elec­tions will be held in April.

Af­ter that, it will be time to pro­mote the agree­ment and be­gin work to widen it. The free trade zone that Jerusalem and Kyiv have cur­rently ne­go­ti­ated will only ap­ply to goods. Fur­ther ex­tend­ing it to ser­vices would boost ar­eas like tech co­op­er­a­tion between the coun­tries.

Lion also hopes to be able to launch ini­tia­tives to ad­dress the chal­leng­ing is­sues of his­tor­i­cal mem­ory within the younger gen­er­a­tion.

He says one of his dreams is to have schools in parts of Ukraine that had a large Jewish pop­u­la­tion be­fore World War II col­lab­o­rate with Is­raeli schools to learn about the his­tory of the lo­cal Jews.

He en­vi­sions that the par­tic­i­pants would then meet in the sum­mer to clean up a ne­glected Jewish ceme­tery or site of his­toric vi­o­lence.

“We have this his­tory, and we can­not put this his­tory aside,” Lion says. “We have to talk about the good and the bad.”

(Volodymyr Petrov)

Joel Lion, Is­rael's Am­bas­sador to Ukraine, speaks with the Kyiv Post at his na­tion's em­bassy in Kyiv on Jan. 16, 2019.

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