Israeli ambassador: Free trade agreement with Ukraine heralds growing connections
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Joel Lion, Israel's Ambassador to Ukraine, speaks with the Kyiv Post at his nation's embassy in Kyiv on Jan. 16, 2019.