Interview with Joel Lion and Ihor Semyvolos (23.07.2019)

In this episode, the guests are Ambassador of Israel to Ukraine Joel Lion and the Executive Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies Ihor Semyvolos.

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

See the text version of the interview:

Popova: Hello, I present today a new episode of the “Eurointegrators” program. Our quests today are the Ambassador of Israel to Ukraine Mr. Joel Lion and the Executive Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies Ihor Semyvolos. There have been more and more cases of customs inspection of Ukrainian citizens at Israeli airports, and even non-admission of Ukrainians into Israel. What could be causing this problem?

Lion: You know, at one hand, we are blessed, and on the other hand, we are cursed. For a couple of years now we have a visa-free regime between Israel and Ukraine, which brought tourism from Ukraine to Israel from around 9,000 tourists a year when there was a visa to almost 150,000 Ukrainians coming to Israel now. Between this 150,000, there are not only people who are coming bona fide. We have to see that in Israel there are a big number of Ukrainians whoa are illegal workers, we have this problem, we are trying to catch them and bring them back to the country. It is a big problem. So, people who are coming at the border re asked to provide something in order to show that they are coming bona fide. What is the thing that they are asked is, for example, if somebody is coming for X-days, he has to show that he has money for these X-days. He has to show that he has hotel for these days. If he is asked, what is the purpose of his visit, he has to prove what is the purpose of his visit, So, there are questions, that are asked, and people, who do not answer the questions, not providing the adequate documents, to show what they are doing, they cannot enter the country. Any country in the world is doing the same. Any country in the world is asking the questions at the entrance, and if the person is not giving the adequate answers – yes, he cannot enter the country.

Semyvolos: Regarding labor migration which caused detaining of people in airports I think today this wave would decrease as we have visa free regime with EU countries. In many countries Ukrainian people have an opportunity to work legally. So, the problem will gradually go away. But saying about troubles that passengers facing in the airports it`s not easy to comment as Israel has its own security system called «Bitahon» and that is very important for the security services. In most cases if one has round trip tickets, money to stay in a country and hotel reservation there would not be any troubles. But sometimes stories happen when two sides have some wrongdoings. We have recreantly heard a story when Ukrainian side stopped the person coming from Israel and Israel side did the same. That was a kind of reaction. Such cases should be discussed in negotiations or may be there should be some help line to settle such cases.

Lion: I’m not looking at the number who are stopped. I know for example, that right now we have Israelis who have been asked and questioned. And again it is the right for any country to check people who are coming into the country. it’s a problem, if the reasons that the people who are not allowed to enter the country are not the good reasons. That’s of course shouldn’t be, and we are always asking what are the reasons, we are checking again, if the reasons were existing. But if somebody comes with everything, and he is not allowed to enter the country – then there is a problem somewhere, and then this problem we want to resolve. The thing is that we have a common commission, and we hope that in the next weeks will put together again and we will talk about everything and each problem. That’s the way we are doing among friends, we have to put everything on the table and we have to talk about the problems.

Popova: Israel is a Major Non-NATO Ally country. Why have you chosen this type of cooperation? And do you support Ukrainian NATO and EU integration policy?

Lion: You know, as you just said we are a Non-NATO country. So, I think that every country in the world, who has leadership, who is democratically elected, and leadership is deciding, what is the best for the interests of its country, should have the right to choose what they want to do. So, Ukraine has an elected leadership, the leadership is deciding, what is in the best interest of Ukraine and that’s what they are doing. So, I always believe, that the will of the people is in democracy, the leadership who is democratically elected, shows the will of the people, and that is the way.

Semyvolos: In this context, we have to look at specific relations between Israel and US. This partnership is very important for both states for security means. And keeping these relations on is vital for them either. For Ukraine, yes, we have opportunities to integrate in Euro-Atlantic community, to become a full part of NATO and EU, and we have to move toward. But we also have to admit an Israel`s experience of building relations with others and to use their knowledge of how to protect own interests.
Popova: Anti-Semitism has been a serious problem for Jewish people. How is the overall situation now in the world? And our studio has prepared the infographics, which you can see, and it’s actually shows, that Ukraine has quite low level of anti-Semitism, even though Russia said the opposite.

Lion: It is the question what is anti-Semitism. And in order to have a common base to talk about anti-Semitism, you should have a common definition of anti-Semitism. What is anti-Semitism? And anti-Semitism – there is a working definition by the international Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, that was adopted by a lot of countries, and it is the European Union so ask now all the countries from the European Union to adopt this definition. Why it is so important to have the definition? Because the moment that you have the definition, you know, that we are talking about the same thing. I’ll give you an example in Britain. There is antisemitism in Britain in the labor party. Before the definition people were saying – no, there is no anti-Semitism within the party, it’s some remarks or things like that and so on, it’s not really anti-Semitism. The moment that you are taking the definition and going according the definition, you see what is anti-Semitism. I will give you an example of an anti-Semitism, that people do not feel that it is anti-Semitism. If somebody is accusing a group – the Jews as a whole – to be responsible for something or for the actions of one individual, Jewish individual – this is anti-Semitism. If people say: “But the Jews are ruling the press”, because some Jews are ruling the press – this Is anti-Semitism. To say that “Jews are ruling the finances” – this is anti-Semitism. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to have the Jews as your fellow-citizens, that’s one question. But the whole thing is to be seen as whole. And the moment that you have a definition and you see the whole, and you asked the question. The problem is not the question, the problem is education. You have to educate the generation living now, but also the next generation of what is anti-Semitism. To be afraid of seeing something and to say… “You see something – you say something” – they say in the United States. If there is a swastika somewhere, and we heard the story now that happened in Kiev on Saturday. And you can say it was a provocation and it was everything coming from another country… Everything is right, but the fact that nobody is yelling about it, nobody sees that there is a problem – having a swastika in a shopping-mall – that’s the problem, not that another or services of another country hacked the computer in order to do it. That’s also a problem, but the main problem that people think that it’s something normal or something that it is banal. This banality – that’s the problematic. So it’s very hard to say that there is no anti-Semitism, when you don’t have this common definition. Because people are not yelling about the anti-Sematic facts. It’s a problem. Not having an official reaction about something. Yes, the police is doing its job, yes, we will find who has done it, yes, maybe you will find that it comes from another country, that’s good, it should be done. But the problem is…

Popova: …that we need an official reaction.

Lion: Exactly. That should be understood, that that is a problem that nobody is reacting, even the people there in the mall, they went as it is totally normal to see thing like that. And it is not normal. It is not normal to have words again the Jews in the subway of Kyiv.
Semyvolos: Yes, I agree, there are some kinds of measuring of anti-Semitism. I think, Ukraine demonstrates a low level of anti-Semitism, but this is just a public display of this issue. I mean different attacks or abuses of Jews. But to have a wider look on it we have to recognize that some negative background still exists. And not just in Ukraine. In some countries, one treats Jews cautiously because they would be like competitor, in some countries, they are treated like those who rule the world or control the media and business. So, these are conspiracy theories many people believe in. The right way to reduce this misunderstanding is an education, struggling against poverty and modernization of society.

Popova: What is about cooperation in the security and defense shere?
Semyvolos: This is a tough question. Ukrainians needed many kinds of know-how in security and defense field. Drones were very important for us, fighting unmanned vehicles as well. Unfortunately, the negotiations finished with no results achieved, despite the fact Ukrainian side wanted such cooperation. So, we had to sign a deal with Turkey. We have a framework for cooperation, but Israel is very careful in this sense and it based on very they sensitive relations with Russia.

Popova: But I heard that there are these drones in Donbass, but not on our side.

Semyvolos: This is another question. It was a project bought by Russia and it happened before the war in Ukraine`s east began. It was earlier.

Popova: Does Israel feel threats from other countries? What are these countries, and how do you stand against these threats?

Lion: It’s not a too big question. There is one answer with a couple of letters – it’s called IRAN. All the threats that we feel are coming from Iran. But it’s not upon your feeling. If somebody every day, some official from Iran is saying that they want to destroy the state of Israel, so we have to take it seriously. Not only the fact that they are trying to have the means to do it, by acquiring nuclear power in order to destroy Israel. But by watching the situation in the Middle East and seeing that in every place that you have instability, Iran is behind it. If it’s in Yemen, the Iranian are supporting the Yemen militants. In Saudi Arabia you have formatting of troubles by Iranian militias. Of course Lebanon, and Lebanon is even more problematic, because not the Iranian militia – the Hesbollah – is a part of the Lebanese government. So you have an Iranian militia who say that some of them are a part of the revolutionary guard of Iran. And they are a part of the government of the Lebanon. Then you have all the bases that Iran is building under boarder between Israel and Syria, they took the pretext to help Assad, but finishing helping Assad there are no building, will build up of military buildup over boarder, that we cannot accept of course. All this put together that you put together with an ideology, which is messianic religious ideology, where they see that there is two kind of world, and the Shiite Islam should be the rule of the world and not the Sunni Islam. Sunni Islam is the Islam of Saudi Arabia for example, but Shiite Islam should be the rule of the world. So they are acquiring the means, they are making the threats loud and clear. And they have the ideology. Yes, we have to be afraid, and yes, we will defend ourselves in any case.

Semyvolos: I remember the moment, about 10 years ago Israel tried to encourage Russia not to support Iran or to take like a neutral position. Now we can see Russia returning back to Middle East in a kind of Union with Iran and Syria led by Bashar Assad and also with Hezbollah. So, I agree that Iran is a strategic enemy for Israel. But despite all the efforts to stop Iran near Israel borders it would not be effective with no counteract to Russia to reduce Russian influence.

Popova: Why in this case Israel is selling military technology to Russia?

Semyvolos: This is policy of Israel, they are often asked about that, I mean cooperation with Russia. And they answer – Russia is here unlike Ukraine. So, from this point of view they need to cooperate as Russia is a partner and important player in the Middle East. So, they have a strategic partnership in military cooperation as well.

Lion: I don’t think that Russia is really supporting Iran. Russia is using Iran. There is a big difference.

Semyvolos: Or vice versa – Iran is using Russia.

Lion: But there is a big difference by supporting and using. Russia has its own interests in the Middle East, first of all to keep the port of Tartus to have the way to the Mediterranean Sea, because they don’t have any other access to the Mediterranean Sea. And I think that Russia is aware of the danger of Iran, because the Iranian missals have also the range to come to Russia. That is one point. Now about the support – you know, there is always the question, where is your main interest. As I said the interest of the state of Israel is the security of our citizens, and we will do as we are doing it, we will continue to do anything in our power in order to have security of our citizens. You are an expert, you know that we are doing a lot in this case.

Popova: You told that you didn’t sell them these technology – drones technology. But we know they have it. Maybe your government did it before?

Lion: Look, everything can be, and you know there are a lot of technologies, there are a lot of Israeli companies going around, there are a lot of technologies going around. There a lot of things that are happening and nobody knows about it, even we can not know about it. But I don’t see today that we are selling drones technologies or anything to Russia. Of course we have to cooperate, but not in this field.
Popova: Israel has not yet conclusively its position towards Russian occupation of Crimea. Could we expect that this will happen some day?
Lion: We always said that we are supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We were among the countries now in the last UN vote to be with Ukraine. We were one of the countries who were there on the side of Ukraine.

Semyvolos: I remember Israel abstained on first voting in 2014. It was caused by the protest, so Israel did not vote. But there were several problematic votings later from Ukrainian and Israel sides and all the misunderstandings were settled and both countries shows solidarity when it is time for voting. So, they support each other.

Popova: What measures can be used in order to stop Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, in your opinion?

Lion: That’s a hard question, you know. We are trying for 25 years to negotiate with our neighbors, with Palestinians, and to find the solution to our problems. So, I’m not in the best position to give you advices what to do. But I think and I feel, that the best way, that’s what we said also with our neighbours, the best thing is to have the negotiation stable. To come in the negotiation room to put everything on the table. Every side should say really what matters, where can I make a compromise, where can I not make a compromise, to have direct dialogue with the other side, to have both sides to be ready to discuss honestly without any other thought and then we will have a peace.
Semyvolos: There are some opinion in Ukrainian press and society that Ukraine should copy the Israel`s strategy in a war that flows from 1948. I think here we have pros and cons. Israel is a good example of how the country would develop even during the war. From another side Israel society is all about the war. Each citizen faced the military issues some time. And that is a challenge for the society. Ukraine faces rather painful strategy of containment. It is the only possible way today. But in the future the overall situation would change, I mean situation within Russia as well. Like it was in the Middle East. And then we would get some new possibilities. But anyway, it is a long way to go and it would be complicated whatever variant of solving a problem we choose.

Popova: Thank you Mr. Ambassador for joining our program, thank you Ihor for coming here. Thanks to all who watched us, see you next week.

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