Israel recently celebrated its 60th birthday. Many world leaders, including US President George Bush, visited Israel to mark this anniversary, which received extensive coverage in the international media.
Israel is ready to advance the peace process in the Middle East. As the news Web site Why-Net reported last week, Israel has offered Palestinian radical groups a two-stage plan to cease hostilities in the Gaza Strip. Many Israeli ministers are ready to consider the question of Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but no earlier than in 25 years.
What lessons has Israel learned after 60 years since its founding? What is the threat presented by Islamic radicalism? Is there any hope that the conflict in the Middle East will finally be resolved? These and other questions are raised in The Day ’s interview with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Israel to Ukraine Zina KALAI-KLEITMAN.
Madam Ambassador, your country recently marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. This is a great date. What lessons has Israel learned in the past 60 years?
“Rather than speaking about lessons, I would prefer to speak about what our country is and what we have achieved during these 60 years, despite a very complicated geopolitical situation that continues today. I would also like to single out the things we lack in our country. We do not have peaceful relations with most of our Arab neighbors. One can also talk about lessons, but the unresolved conflict with our Arab neighbors - which is not our fault - is a result that does not satisfy us. To what should one aspire? Without a doubt, to peace. We are continuing to negotiate with the Palestinians, although they are split in two, and we are conducting negotiations with the president who is on the West Bank of the Jordan and truly represents half of the Palestinian population. But it is impossible to conduct negotiations with the Gaza Strip, which is led by Hamas. They are bombing the southern part of our county and do not recognize Israel.
“However, there are parallel negotiations with some Palestinians. There is no peace with other neighboring countries, but recent events inspire us with cautious hope. Literally a few days ago it was announced that the first cautious, indirect contacts mediated by Turkey have begun, and they are connected to the possibility of conducting negotiations with Syria. This event may be a dramatic turning point that will enable us to achieve positive results. Unfortunately, we have already had the sad experience of past negotiations with Syria that failed.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently warned about the possible “end of the Jewish state.” Some experts had previously spoken about the Islamic ax hanging over Israel. Is this threat exaggerated? Is Israel’s very existence at risk?
“The threat of Islamic radicalism and terror exists, and it has been hanging not just over Israel but the whole world. Of course, we are on the front line geopolitically, because we are geographically close to the centers of Islamic radicalism. It is clear that if attempts to change the world map are made by means of terror, Israel will have to absorb the first strike, and we should be ready to repel any kind of strike. This topic is constantly being discussed. It was discussed at a big conference organized by President Shimon Peres this month, which was dedicated to Israel’s 60th anniversary. President Viktor Yushchenko also attended this international forum with other heads of state.
“There is a threat of terrorism, of course. Look at what is going on in Lebanon. The terrorist organization Hezbollah, which is the emissary of radical Iran, is in control there. And Iran not only wants to develop its nuclear potential, it is a threat to Israel’s existence. Iran’s president says that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. So, the threat is real, and it must be discussed. Preparations must be made in order to avert it.”
Ukrainian television channels have been devoting a lot of coverage to Israel, saying that fewer Jews are moving to the Promised Land. Many Jews are also returning to the lands where they were born and raised. Does this mean that Israel is losing its attractiveness? How do you explain this trend?
“The issue is not that large numbers of people are coming here only because Israel is attractive. Many people come and then leave the countries where they were born and grew up because they are not satisfied with the level of life there. If the question is about our nation, some people have been coming to Israel recently not only because of their ideological Zionist beliefs but also because they are accepted there and they obtained citizenship. However, there is still a Zionist component. Like before, our country is a national center for all Jews in the world. However, if there is an opportunity to enjoy a better life and freer development in Ukraine, of course, not everyone will choose to move to Israel. For example, many Israelis who have found a comfortable base in Ukraine to develop their business live there. They either live there for a long period of time or they live in both countries, commuting between Israel and Ukraine. But Israel has not lost its attractiveness because we objectively have become one of the most economically developed countries of the world. The most vivid example in recent years is the level of development in the sphere of high technology: Israel now occupies first or second place in the world.”
You once said that Israeli and Ukrainian scholars as well as government representatives are dealing with the questions of Ukrainians’ involvement in the Holocaust and recognition of the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Were the arguments and documents of the Ukrainian special services convincing enough for Israel?
“We have differences of opinion with the Ukrainian side concerning certain historical events. These differences should become the subject of a dialogue. By the way, such a dialogue was offered by the Ukrainian side during President Yushchenko’s visit to Israel last November. And we are ready for it. Unfortunately, the dialogue does not always proceed as we would like. I am sure that these differences can be discussed, but real dialogue is needed for this. I mean that a discussion of painful pages of history by both sides should take place, even if these sides bring absolutely different views of the same events.
“During the Second World War 1.5 out of 6 million Jews died on the territory of Ukraine. When we speak about dialogue, we mean that we have our own view of the UPA taking part in the mass extermination of Jewish people. The Ukrainian side has a different position. This should be a matter for discussion in the form of a dialogue.”
During his last visit to Israel, President Yushchenko reminded his counterpart, President Peres, that Ukraine supported the founding of the State of Israel in the late 1940s. In response, the Ukrainian side expects that Israel will support Ukraine’s efforts to have the UN recognize the Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people. Can we expect such a step on your country’s part?
“Your country expects not only Israel but the whole world to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. But there are differences on this subject, including the definition of the concept of genocide. Israel recognizes the Holodomor as a great tragedy of the Ukrainian people. We believe that the whole world should be aware of this. We also consider that this date should be marked, events should be studied, so that such a thing will never happen again.”
Lately there has been a lot of talk that Israel may abolish the visa regime for Russia. What about the visa-waiver regime with Ukraine from where more Jews probably moved than from Russia?
“Yes, the visa-waiver regime will come into force in the nearest future. After this process takes place, this experience will be studied in Israel. And next year, of course, if this experience is positive, there will be a possibility to start negotiations with Ukraine.”