Ambassador of a warring country: Yevhen Korniychuk. Interview with the Ambassador of Ukraine to Israel

Ambassador Yevhen Korniychuk. Photo: Shimon Briman

I'll start with an anecdote. An old Jew prayed at the Wailing Wall for peace between Jews and Arabs for 70 years. When asked: "What do you feel now?" — he replied: "It's like talking to a wall!" Mr. Ambassador, judging by your statements, do you feel something similar after talking with the Israeli government? 

(Laughs) I have to be an optimist in my position. Otherwise, I'll have to quit right away. And this, in the current situation in Ukraine, will be perceived as a betrayal. My fellow ambassadors or ministers from Kyiv write after my critical statements [to the Israeli government. Sh.B.]: "Well done, water wears away a stone!" But I came across a stone that does not wear away at all.

Nevertheless, it is important to remind the Israeli information space about the war in Ukraine. And as the war continues, it becomes more difficult. "Well, again the shelling of the city, again the dead…"

In your opinion, are the positions of the Israeli governments under Bennett, Lapid, and Netanyahu on Ukraine the same or changing?

Netanyahu supported the reserved position of the previous government. They said everything else in that government was bad, except for the Ukrainian issue. This is the only topic on which Bibi praised Lapid.

It was easier to talk to the left government. They condemned the actions of the Russian Federation, Lapid spoke about this twice. At the same time, there was little else apart from words. Well, humanitarian aid was on the way. In 2023, it was delayed. We were told, "This is due to the late adoption of the budget," but we know that in Israel, they can allocate funding up to one-twelfth of last year’s amount even without the adopted budget.

Certain promises were made in Kyiv by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, but they have yet to be fulfilled. When we remind them of this, they get annoyed. I don't know why; I'm surprised.

Maybe your aggressive style annoys them? By the way, do you agree that you have an aggressive style?

No, I have an extremely friendly style. Maybe they forget that they are our friends? And maybe they just forget that they promised something to friends.

Do you deliberately make high-profile actions and statements? To achieve what?

To be heard, of course. I've been in Israel long enough to learn the rule: a "nice guy" in the Middle East gets nothing. I think it was Ben-Gurion who said, "The child who cries the loudest gets the most milk." How can you be just a "nice guy" when our people are dying?

We consider Israel a friendly state, and I am absolutely sure that our pain is reflected in the eyes and hearts of the Israelis who support us. I tell the Israelis: "I am proud of you — your attitude towards Ukraine and your support. My problem is not with you but with the Israeli government." At this, the Israelis smile and say: "We also have problems with our government." Therefore, we, unfortunately, do not have many opportunities to be heard.

In your opinion, what is the root of the unwillingness of the Israeli leadership to do more for Ukraine than was done in a year and a half of the war? What prevents it? 

We are talking not only about humanitarian aid but are calling — so far unsuccessfully — for military-technical cooperation. We do not need to be given anything. We ask for a purchase, for arranging contracts for the supply of air defense that save human lives. This is not a weapon at all but defensive equipment. It's alarming when we cannot get through at all on such issues. I cannot explain this to myself.

Israel's neighbor — Turkey — has a balanced position towards the Russian Federation, but at the same time, it sells weapons to Ukraine. It is difficult for me to understand the peculiarities of the position that the Prime Minister of Israel constantly talks about. When I communicate with the EU ambassadors, they unequivocally tell me they do not understand Israel's position.

But you constantly raise the bar of expectations from Israel in your statements. What for?

The second feature of Israel, as I learned, is that you have to ask for the impossible in order to get the maximum. If you don't set ambitious goals for yourself, you won't achieve anything. The level of cooperation that exists today has not been easy to attain, but for every small movement in our direction, we loudly say, "Thank you!"

For example, after the visit of the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, to Israel in June 2023, we have continued to cooperate with the Israeli Ministry of Health. As a result, the ministry will provide Ukraine with epidemiological tests to help deal with the aftermath of the Russian troops blowing up the Kakhovka Dam.

In response to criticism from your side, official Israel says that it helps Ukraine at the pace and to the extent that it can do it. It seems that you are not ready to take this into account.

I ask you not to judge a person in trouble strictly, and we are now in great trouble. In my opinion, we state our position correctly. But if it offends anyone, I'm ready to apologize.

But even projects under implementation are now extremely slow. Take an early warning system for missile attacks, for example. This assistance was promised to us back in mid-2022, but only in September 2023 will it begin to be tested in Ukraine. But people die every day, and this system was needed yesterday. If something can be accelerated, let's accelerate it.

I know I have become a champion in calls to the Israeli Foreign Ministry — I have already been invited to talks five times. But if half a year ago some statements of the embassy caused bewilderment in the Israeli public, now I don't see it. Our latest comments are received with support in Israeli society.

There are clear hints of a rapprochement between the position of the Israeli leadership and the Russian Federation — and this causes tension not only for us but also for our European colleagues. Business as usual with Russia is no longer possible.

Did Prigozhin's rebellion, which showed Putin's weakness, affect the Israeli leadership's reassessment of the situation in Russia?

In my opinion, yes. They are rethinking the entire vertical of Russian power to see to what extent it is capable of fulfilling previously adopted agreements. This is a big question for the Israeli leadership.

And then the idea was voiced that the Prime Minister of Israel flew on a visit to Kyiv...

I can only confirm that Bibi Netanyahu's invitation to Kyiv has been on the table for a long time. I hope that a positive decision will finally be made.

In the US-Ukraine-Israel triangle, do you see America as a way to influence the change in Israel's position?

Regarding its position, certainly. I want to note that American Jewish organizations fully support Ukraine and are trying to draw the attention of the Israeli government to the fact that more can be done for Ukraine. We maintain close relationships with the Jewish community in the United States. I do not want to enter the field of my colleague, Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova, but I constantly meet with those American Jewish leaders who come to Israel.

There is a complex historical background of Ukrainian-Jewish relations, the memory of the bloodshed of past centuries. In your opinion, does our common past influence the present Israel-Ukraine bilateral relations?

Oh, my God, let's also remember the pharaohs who mocked the Jews. Does this affect relations between Egypt and Israel now? How deep are we going to dig? The history of Bohdan Khmelnytsky is almost 400 years old. As a Ukrainian, how can I be responsible for the events of 400 years ago? As a Ukrainian, I can pass laws against antisemitism, and I am responsible for this — so that such phenomena will never happen again.

And I support my president, a Jew, who, of course, is concerned about such things and keeps in touch with the rabbis. As heads of the Jewish communities during the war, they are helping not only Jews but all Ukrainians. It seems that historical parallels benefit our enemies, who use these topics for their own purposes.

You first worked in Israel 20 years ago, in 2003, in the rank of Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine, dealing with a tragic topic.

Yes, my first experience in Israel was connected with a Russian plane shot down by a Ukrainian missile [with Israeli passengers; the tragedy of 4 October 2001 during the Russian-Ukrainian military exercises over the Black Sea. Sh.B.]. I then spent two months conducting negotiations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As a result, we signed an agreement with the families of the victims, and compensation was paid to everyone.

Why did Ukraine then decide to pay compensation but not to admit guilt?

It's a common practice. We raised 50 similar incidents with British lawyers. The question was debatable — is it our rocket or not? There was, for example, the downing of an Israeli aircraft by the Bulgarians without payment of compensation. The Israeli side agreed with our formula.

When the issue of your appointment as ambassador to Israel was being decided, did you want to come here?

I didn't have much choice. I was told I was coming here.

Your mood before coming to Israel and now. Look at yourself three years ago — what has changed in you?

Naivety is gone. But the enthusiasm has not yet ended. We are working. Every day, we try to get small victories.

Published in September 2023.