Novak Djokovic and Slobodan Milosevic. A collection of tennis titles and shiny winners' cups, and piles of bodies and mass graves. These roughly delineate the immediate associations that Serbia has generated in recent years: At one end stands the best tennis player in the world, and on the other the most notorious war criminal Europe has known since World War II.
Two events marked recently - the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Belgrade, and the fourth anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence - give us an opportunity to examine these associations through Israeli eyes and to look at whether the image of Nole or that of Slobo will be the one to prevail here.
Eighty-eight countries have recognized an independent Kosovo, including the United States and most EU member states. Israel, however, has on this matter turned its back on its natural allies and positioned itself with Russia and China, those well-known champions of human rights.
There are several explanations for this attitude. There is Israel's opposition to unilateral steps liable to serve as a model for an arrangement with the Palestinians or to inspire the Arabs of the Galilee to secede from the state. There is its objection to moves that undermine the international law and circumvent the UN Security Council, where Israel has the benefit of America's veto power. There is also the fear that the "theft" of Kosovo, which Belgrade calls "the Serbian Jerusalem," could lead to the original Jerusalem turning into the capital of an independent Palestine. And there's concern about the strengthening of Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism in Europe.
Four years down the road, it seems as if these fears were unfounded. Kosovo declared independence with the approval of the United States and most of Europe, under predetermined conditions. Whereas Albanians make up 90 percent of the Kosovo population, the Galilee has a mixed Jewish-Arab population, and no major international player would support separatism by Israeli Arabs.
The need to circumvent the United Nations is the result of that body's inability to resolve crises. The most recent example of this is the continuing bloodbath in Syria.
And while the Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital, the Kosovars never cast their eyes on Belgrade. Furthermore, while at least some Jews are prepared to compromise on Jerusalem, the Serbs categorically refuse to give up on what they consider to be the cradle of their civilization.
Independent Kosovo is a pro-American country, which has consistently made overtures to Israel and is interested in integrating into the European landscape. This guarantees that its Islam, which is moderate will stay that way.
What's left is considering the joint historical heritage of Jews and Serbs, a concept the Serbs repeatedly raise. At an event marking 20 years of diplomatic relations, Serbian President Boris Tadic cited the "eternal friendship" between the two peoples, who were targets of destruction and persecution throughout history. He pledged "to be at the side of the Jewish people and the State of Israel and deepen the ties between the countries."
Even so, when it comes to its own interests, Serbia suddenly forgets the historic shared destiny and the fact that their brothers, the Jews, have not recognized Kosovo's independence. In October, Serbia voted to recognize Palestine as UNESCO's 195th member. Furthermore, Belgrade admits it would not have opposed a resolution recognizing Palestinian sovereignty, had one come before the UN General Assembly.
A fear that the Muslim world may broaden its recognition of an independent Kosovo might have been behind Serbia's pro-Palestinian position. Once Belgrade frees itself from the burden of the Kosovo issue, it might conduct a foreign policy that reflects the Serbs' true feelings and the great empathy they have for Jews and for Israel.
Either way, Serbia shouldn't be punished for its vote. The country that until recently was treated like a pariah is doing all it can to close the book on Milosevic and open one on Djokovic. The new Serbia has been undergoing a remarkable transformation in recent years. It has extradited all its war criminals, and is reconciling with its neighbors and attempting to come to terms with Kosovo. Earlier this month, the European Union declared it an official candidate for membership, thereby ending 20 years of Serbian isolation.
Israel must support the Europeanization of Serbia, but it must also remain loyal to the principles of self-determination that were the basis for its own founding.
There's no place here for a zero-sum game. The only realistic formula is a European Serbia and an independent Kosovo.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now