The chairman of the Knesset’s Education committee, MK Yakov Margi of the Shas party, has caused what appears to be an embarrassing diplomatic incident with the government of Ukraine. Taking a highly unusual step on Wednesday, Margi met with the leader of the Republic of Crimea, Sergei Aksionov.
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The Crimean president heads a puppet government established by the Russian government following its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Aksioniov’s government is not recognized by any Western country and contact with it is barred by Ukrainian law.
The Russian government and authorities in the Crimean republic were quick to make use of Margi’s visit and the recognition that he accorded them, publicizing it in the local media as a visit by an official Knesset delegation and representing it as a diplomatic achievement. An article on the website of the official Crimean republic news agency reported that President Aksionov had made it clear to Knesset member Margi that their meeting would help the republic in the diplomatic battle that it has been waging.
“Despite the difficulties, Margi’s visit shows that we have managed to break the information blockade that has been imposed on us,” Aksionov told reporters after his meeting with Margi. “I am certain at this time that our voice is being heard and that we are not alone. Thank you, Yakov Margi, who came here despite what people think - that Crimea is a dangerous place for members of parliament and businesspeople."
"I am certain that he will return to Israel and tell people in his country that Crimea has returned to its homeland based on the will on its people," Aksionov added.
After the meeting, Margi also spoke to invited reporters and thanked his hosts. He said the aim of his visit had been to assess the situation of the Jewish community in Crimea. “I have seen the life of the community and that tells you the truth about Crimea,” he said. “I have seen people living their lives, despite the very different picture that they tried to paint for me [before the visit].”
Margi also compared how the international media relates to Israel with how it relates to the situation in Crimea. “When [people] turn on the television, they think Israel is a place where everyone has a rifle,” he said, “but the reality is very different. It’s not enough to see the pictures. You need to read the fine print. I felt comfortable in Crimea and when a Jew feels comfortable in a certain place, that says a lot.”
Senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said that they had not known in advance about Margi’s visit to Crimea or his meetings with the local authorities there, and had not been briefed on it. Knesset sources noted that Margi’s trip was not an official Knesset visit, and that he had presented it to the Knesset Ethics Committee for its approval as a private visit. In his travel request, Margi had written that the trip was at the invitation of the rabbi of the Crimean city of Sevastopol to tour Jewish institutions in the city. The Ethics Committee approved the trip.
Margi’s trip to Crimea and his meeting with the president of the Republic of Crimea are problematic for two reasons. First, Israel has never recognized the republic and in recent years has tried to remain neutral regarding the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Secondly, according to Ukrainian law, Margi committed a criminal act and could be subject to arrest if he were to visit areas controlled by the legitimate, legal government of Ukraine.
“This was not a trip on behalf of the Knesset and the Knesset was not involved in organizing it. Knesset members take work trips at the invitation of various entities," Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir said. "The Ethics Committee merely verifies that they do not involve business groups. In this case, Knesset member Margi presented an invitation from the rabbi of the city of Sevastapol in Russia, Rabbi Binyomin Wolf, and he noted that that Jewish community in the city was interested in inviting the Knesset member and funding the visit.”
Just a month ago, the Ukrainian embassy in Israel released a statement warning Israelis against contacts or doing business with the Russian occupation forces in Crimea. In the statement, the Ukrainian government threatened sanctions against individual Israelis and Israeli companies carrying out business activities there.
The statement said the embassy had received information that Israeli citizens were entering the region occupied by Russian on the Crimean Peninsula and that, contrary to Ukrainian law, they were maintaining business cooperation with “the illegal authorities” there without obtaining permission from the Ukrainian government. “Such activity is considered a violation of Ukrainian law,” the statement said, “particularly a violation of Ukrainian law protecting the rights and freedoms of the residents and the legal authority in the occupied territory in Crimea.”
The Ukrainian embassy also made it clear in the statement that cooperation with the Russian occupation forces in Crimea was a violation of international law and runs counter to a March 2014 decision by the United Nations General Assembly that emphasized the need to maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
“In the event that such activity continues, the information on the matter will be provided to the relevant authorities in Ukraine to try the violators of existing law,” the statement said. “In addition, the Ukrainian government will consider adding Israeli companies [that cooperate with the Russian occupation of Crimea] to a blacklist of organizations acting in violation of the law and on which sanctions are imposed.”