“Reforms are important for Ukraine, but they may not be the key to Trump”: Interview with the former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel

Jerusalem is the real capital of Israel (Photo: Danylo Pavlov, Segodnia)

The U.S. is providing military aid to Israel, but in contrast to NATO countries, they have never sent their troops to our country.

In an interview published on the Segodnia website, Dan Meridor, the president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel (2009–2013), talked about how the U.S. is helping Israel militarily and how Ukraine should establish relations with the Trump administration.

Israel is one of a handful of countries that, having spent more than 70 years in a state of war, built up its army from scratch and implemented a number of successful reforms. Of course, many might say that with an ally like the United States watching its back, anyone could be capable of this. But contemporary educational and healthcare systems, which other countries have adopted as their building blocks, cannot be credited to the Americans. And here Ukraine has much to learn.

In his speech at the conference “Israel’s Experience of State Building: Lessons for Ukraine,” organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and the New Europe Center, Eliav Belotserkovsky, Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine, said: “Without economic growth, innovations, modern technologies, and investments in medical research, it is very complicated to talk about a country’s powerful security system.”

And while reforms in Ukraine are being pushed through, we continue to complain about insufficient aid from the U.S. and the European Union. Right now, Kyiv is passing a kind of test of reforms, on whose implementation depends financial aid from the IMF and the EU. But there is a political side of this coin: The more Ukraine fulfills its obligations the greater the trust on the part of the international community. And both the sanctions against Russia and the West’s cohesion in the face of Russian aggression depend on this.

Israel can boast of its close relationship with the U.S., which is providing military aid to Tel Aviv. What is Washington supplying to you?

– Yes, the US is helping Israel militarily, but they have never sent us their troops, in contrast to the NATO member-countries. They are defending Europe, and American troops are based in the countries of the Alliance in Europe. Israel does not want this; we should be protecting our country by ourselves. But we are receiving the cash equivalent of military aid from the US. We purchase American planes for our air force: F15s, F16s, and F35s. Just so you know, we buy American military technology with American currency that Washington earmarks for us. This is the basic type of aid from the States. But there is another type: joint military projects to develop weapons, for example, the Golden Dome [Iron Dome] tactical system (developed by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems—Author]. Some of these projects are financed by Israel, others by the States.

When Trump came to the White House, Ukraine obtained lethal weapons, which the Obama administration had blocked for a long time. But a problem remains: Will additional military aid be viewed through the prism of “how will Moscow react to this”?

– Forgive me, but I don’t have a simple answer for you. U.S.-Russian relations are absolutely important for both sides. I can only say that I don’t understand Trump in many respects. He does things that I would never do, even if they led to success. You can see this right now in relation to North Korea, Iran… I have worked with various U.S. administrations in the last 30 years, but I don’t know Trump and his milieu. Yes, I know some of them, but I don’t understand what he is trying to achieve. But if he succeeds in this and shows strength in his relations with Russia, he should take what you are saying into consideration. 

Many diplomats and experts are advising Ukraine to speed up the process of reforms and democratic transformations. They say that then the States will trust and help Kyiv more as a reliable partner that keeps its promises.

– You must understand that it is very difficult to understand what moves Trump personally as well as his administration. If reforms, rule of law, and democracy are truly important to him, of course, this may work. But this may not be the key to Trump and his administration.

Israel has been in a state of war for more than 70 years, and in terms of its assistance and experience it is very valuable to Ukraine.  In what spheres do you see our cooperation expanding?

– This should be the subject of negotiations on the inter-governmental level.  We are already cooperating in such spheres as medicine and the economy; we are on the verge of signing a free-trade agreement between our two countries. But we could also cooperate in the military and technological spheres; these should be developed by our governments. Ukraine, like Israel, is defending itself. Don’t forget that, after all, history is not about states but about people. Give your people more freedom, economic and cultural freedom. If we give our people more freedom, instead of just sitting around and dictating what they should do, they will be able to develop the economy and build up the country. Naturally, the country must be defended. If you’re not fighting for your country, you don’t have a country. But values and freedom for people are also very important; don’t forget this.

– But we also remember the sensational scandal that erupted in late 2016, when Ukraine supported what Tel Aviv saw as an anti-Israel resolution condemning the construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory on the West Bank of the River Jordan. Israel was not just offended by Ukraine: Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the visit of [his Ukrainian counterpart] Volodymyr Groysman. Can this scandal be considered as having been put to rest?

– Israel’s policy in the West Bank is still not settled; there has been no resolution in our country to this day. We have tried to settle this question, and not just this government (although it might appear to be one that talks more than it does); Barack Obama’s administration also tried to find a solution. And here the question is not about Ukraine and Israel—we ourselves should solve this problem for ourselves. After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, of course, many things changed for Ukraine. So, I understand why Ukraine voted this way. But I cannot tell you what the government of Israel [Netanyahu—author] is thinking.

According to our government representatives, we are about to sign a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and Israel.

– Yes, that is correct. Unfortunately, I cannot give you a firm date because I don’t know the exact stage of the ongoing negotiations. But, unlike Trump, I am all in favor of free-trade zones with everyone in the whole world.

And you, unlike Trump, would probably not abandon the nuclear deal with Iran? That’s a joke, of course, because official Tel Aviv supported Washington’s decision.

– In my view, that was a strange decision. Of course, if it works and Tehran changes its policies, that’s fine. The Iran nuclear deal, which the U.S. and six other countries signed, is full of flaws. But it’s not so bad that it should be torn up; the Americans were too hasty here. 

Barack Obama believes that the U.S.’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal may lead to a new war in the Middle East.

– I am not sure that this can lead to a new war. But Trump’s decision is extraordinary. How can a country like the United States, with a consistent foreign policy, abandon international agreements that it itself signed?

But, you see, Trump promised to open an American embassy in Jerusalem, and he did it. True, on the day it was opened, we were witness to bloody clashes in the Gaza Strip, which resulted in the deaths of over 60 people.

– This particular step of the US did not surprise me. That’s what everyone else should do. Jerusalem is the real capital of Israel, not Tel Aviv; I have lived there my entire life. But this does not solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians claim Jerusalem, we will not give it back. The Palestinian side does not want to sit down to negotiate, and this is a big problem. And the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem should not be the cause of bloody violence. If you walk through Old Jerusalem, which is half-Jewish and half-Arab, if you go to the bazaar, you will not see any violence; everything is calm. Clashes take place in the Gaza Strip, which are provoked by [the terrorist organization—Author] Hamas. It espouses an illegitimate religious ideology that propels people toward violence. Hamas is supported by Iran (Iran generally exploits two groups: Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine). In the past, it was also supported by Egypt (but it lost this support after the fall of the Morsi government—Author].

Originally appeared in Ukrainian in Сьогодні.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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