Us against the world

Along with President Putin - but in contrast to almost everyone else - a large delegation of observers from Israel pronounced the elections in Ukraine legitimate. The diplomatic repercussions could be serious.

Lily Galili

Haaretz

Kislev 15, 5765

When the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament announced on Tuesday night that there would be a summit meeting between "President Leonid Kuchma, President Viktor Yushchenko and President Viktor Yanukovich" his words were met with derision by the community of Russian speakers in Israel. But while elections in the country of three presidents aroused wide interest in the community, the major topic of conversation soon became the delegation of observers from Israel that was in Ukraine. In fact, this subject has reached far beyond the community boundaries; it is also causing distress in the Israeli embassy in Kiev, among the Jewish community in Ukraine and even within Israel's Foreign Ministry.

The delegation of observers sent from Israel to monitor the Ukraine elections was put together by the Institute for the Study of the CIS and Eastern Europe. There is no reason to feel uneasy if you have never heard of this body. Since its establishment, in 2001, by former MK Alexander Tsinker (Democratic Choice), the institute has not made headlines. In fact, it has done very little. But all that changed instantly when 62 observers, most of them journalists in the local Russian media, went off to Ukraine to monitor the presidential elections there. (About 15 of them were Americans and Britons, some of whom are coming to Israel to take part in the Jerusalem Summit, a right-wing conference supported by Michael Chernoy, and Israeli businessman of Russian origin. This is undeniably an important mission, worthy of representatives - even unofficial ones - of a democracy. And here the Jewish genius once again proved its distinctiveness. Even though almost the entire world is outraged at the disorder and perhaps even the illegitimacy of the elections, a different message emerged from the Israeli delegation.

The Internet site Yamik, which is in Russian and Ukrainian, related that, in contrast to the complaints of the rest of the Western world, "official observers from an international organization in Israel found no serious impediments in the voting process and described the elections as legitimate and compatible with democratic norms."

Similarly, the daily Pravda, an incarnation of the veteran Soviet newspaper, reported happily that "there are also other opinions" and quoted the differing view of the observers from Israel. Even the Russian state television channel paid the Israeli observers a special tribute when it quoted their finding that the elections were legitimate. The report went on to quote Lev Varshenin, a reporter and commentator for the Israeli Russian-language paper Vesty, who is described as "director of the analytic branch of the institute," as having stated, in a press conference in Ukraine, "The observers reached the conclusion that it can be said that the elections met the standards of democracy."

If the observers from Israeli found departures from the norm, they were seen only in western Ukraine, the area most closely linked with Europe, and where the opposition candidate, Yushchenko, won a clear victory. The international community is divided into two camps: Europe and the United States on one side, Russia and Israel on the other. According to this pattern, the voting by the former Ukrainians in Israel was also surprising: 80 percent of the 3,000 voters here, the highest number of any Western country, cast their ballots for Yanukovich, the candidate who is supported by Russia.

In Israel and in the Jewish community of Ukraine the reports were greeted with astonishment. The big question was the source of the funding that made possible the large delegation's lengthy stay in Ukraine. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has completely dissociated itself from the delegation. MK Michael Nudelman (National Union), who is chairman of the Israel-Ukraine Parliamentary Association, sounded angry. "How is it that only our democrats say that the United States and the European Union are lying, and only Russia and our delegation are in the right?" he asked. "If Yushchenko becomes president, what kind of relations will we be able to maintain with his government in the wake of the delegation's activity?"

MK Roman Bronfman (Yahad-Meretz), the former political ally of Tsinker, was also concerned. "I think that the participation of an Israeli delegation in undemocratic elections whose legitimacy is in doubt, does nothing to enhance Israel's international image," he said cautiously. "The fact that this is an unofficial delegation, whose identity is not clear, only heightens the damage."

Whose money?

The background against which this problem sprang up is unclear. Tsinker rejects outright any allegation that the delegation is ideologically or financially beholden to the Russia of President Vladimir Putin, and says that he received the invitation to send a delegation of observers from the "Clean Elections" organization. Tsinker was unable to provide a precise reply about the organization's identity. "I saw their request in Russian and Ukrainian, and I think it's a Ukrainian organization," he says. "I don't know exactly who it belongs to. When I talk to someone, I don't ask about his whole history. I took someone to arrange all the details, hotels and expenses. I myself did not enter the financial sphere. All I am interested in is the situation in Ukraine."

One person who is very upset by the absence of more information is the chairman of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, Josef Zisels. "I have a lot of questions and very few answers," he said by phone from Kiev. "Who put the delegation together? Who paid the money? I asked the members of the delegation, but they didn't answer. I asked in the Israeli Embassy here, and they told me they don't know and they don't want anything to do with them. I simply don't understand them. After all, it's absurd that the whole Western world says one thing and only the Israeli delegation says something else. I asked them about that, too, and they said they don't see a lot of problems. I don't know how they didn't see what the others saw. Maybe it has something to do with the source of the financing, but I don't know."

Zisels related that on the day before the elections the local television news broadcast a short segment from an event held at the Russian club in Kiev. The place, officially described as an intellectual club, is one of the channels of influence of President Putin in Ukraine. To Zisels' amazement, the faces of Tsinker and Varashnin also appeared on the screen. "I was stunned," Zisels says. "This club is known as the place of people who have good relations with [outgoing Ukraine President] Kuchma, who supports Yanukovich. What were they doing there?"

Even if the astonishment expressed by Zisels (who supports Yushchenko) is a vestige of Soviet paranoia, the fact remains that the delegation from Israel left scorched earth in Ukraine. "It is a total disgrace," says Dr. Alex Feldman of the Tel Aviv-based Mutagim Institute. He is a permanent observer of elections in the republics of the former Soviet Union, on behalf of the association of parliaments in Europe. This time he was connected to the Tsinker delegation for technical reasons but was not an integral part of it. "It's not the whole delegation that spoke in this way, but a few people who are not very smart," he said on his return to Israel. "I am convinced that the official report that will be written will be different from these statements." And no wonder.