An invitation to Israel's official Independence Day celebration in Greece was a welcome relief when I found myself stuck in Athens recently. Expecting some falafel and a few folk-singing Israelis, I was hardly prepared for the amazing turnout of 1,000 participants, a veritable who's who of Greek influencers including the defense minister, members of parliament and senior military officers.
The road to this event in Athens, unsurprisingly, runs directly through Istanbul. Redefined Turkey is trying hard to carve out a new international role, especially attempting to leverage the unrest generated by the Arab Spring upheavals to garner wider influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.
The flip side of the coin is a quick realigning of forces that don't appreciate what Turkey is trying to do. Veteran Turkey-skeptics Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria are central to the reshaping of regional priorities for Israel, and the huge gas discoveries precisely at the epicenter of this region underscore both the significance and volatility of this process.
The entire story, the part that transcends the Turkish thrust/counter-thrust, proves far more intriguing. Delving just one layer deeper offers a wealth of possibilities for savvy Israeli initiatives in a wider sphere of ripening influence. In fact, a true sea change is about to happen for the Jewish state in the heart of the Balkans.
At the heart of this opportunity is the history-hardened love-hate relationship between current players like Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and others. Let's take tiny Albania as a case in point.
The only Muslim-majority country in Europe yet one of only two which had more Jews inside its borders at the conclusion of World War II than at the outset, it has marched (more precisely been force-marched at gunpoint ) to the beat of a different drummer for centuries. What does one expect from a land peopled to the 70% level with Muslims and tightly ruled by Ottoman Muslims for 500 years? Well, perhaps more than what one gets today. Not a covered woman's face to be seen anywhere. Free-flowing alcohol and pork in the charming street cafes of Tirana. Few speak holy Arabic.
Turns out that the natives turned Muslim not so much out of theological fervor but from coercion. Muslims were exempt from usurious taxes on non-Muslims, not to mention mandatory conscription of their sons into the armies of Constantinople. For an easy-going kind of people, Islam seemed not so much opportunistic as sensible. Moreover, a predominate stream of Islam in Albania are the Baktashis, or Sufis, who constitute the third major world strain of Islam after the more well-known and intense Sunnis and Shi'ites. The Sufis, in the Western eye, are everything their militant coreligionists are not: mystical, liberal, embracing the wisdoms of all faiths.
Five hundred years of Islam just didn't stick and whatever did survive the Sultan was given a swift kick in the pants by decades of thoroughly eccentric anti-clerical rule by the enigmatic communist-Maoist strongman Enver Hoxha. To understand the Albanian opportunity, and that found throughout the Balkans in both Muslim and non-Muslim cultures, three observations: * While dirt poor and shamefully mismanaged, the people are hard-working and ambitious; hi-tech, sustainable energy and tourism infrastructures are begging to be developed, and serious pockets of vast natural resources do exist (chrome ore to name but one ).
* The countries adore and idolize the United States. Beyond the usual reasons of enticing TV programs and alluring McDonalds recipes, they deeply appreciate the American role in safeguarding the freedom - and indeed the lives - of Balkan Muslims (read more pointedly ethnic Albanians ) during the bloody civil war there. If Albania sent (symbolically ) troops to join the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, that makes the point far more sharply than any words. Coordination in this region with the U.S. to advance Israeli initiatives would be a very smart card to play.
* Finally, due to their history, the Balkan countries are exceptionally wary of Turkey's new global gambit to extend its influence. They went through this once - it lasted 500 years and was not a pleasant experience.
In short, Israel enjoys an historic opportunity to become a significant Balkan actor among a collection of genial, friendly new potential allies on the cusp of finally joining a post-Soviet era burst of economic and infrastructure development.
I was pleased, but not surprised, to learn that an Israel Ambassador has been named for Albania (not to mention a Chabad rabbi! ), and to randomly meet in the streets of Tirana a former IDF brigadier general hard at work digging for unspecified opportunities and one of Israel's leading solar energy entrepreneurs visiting to explore "opportunities."
In a few scant years, Israel's standing in the region can be significantly strengthened. As Turkish noises inevitably grow more vociferous regarding, for example, their "claims" to Mediterranean gas supplies being developed by Israel, it will be much healthier to face that challenge with the entire neighborhood behind us than alone.
Charley J. Levine is a media affairs consultant based in Jerusalem.
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