Serbia, Palestinians and ‘Secessionists’: Why Israel Took So Long to Commit to Kosovo

Kosovo courted Israel, unrequited, for a decade. This is how Yasser Arafat, Trumpist transactionalism, the ‘Muslim terrorist’ phantasm, appeals to Holocaust memory and fear of succession played a part in Israel’s decision

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Kosovo Albanians walk past the flags of Israel and Kosovo flag at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Pristina displayed during a Zoom ceremony establishing diplomatic relations
Kosovo Albanians walk past the flags of Israel and Kosovo flag at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Pristina displayed during a Zoom ceremony establishing diplomatic relations.Credit: ARMEND NIMANI - AFP

On February 2, 2021, Kosovo and Israel held a virtual ceremony in which they formally established diplomatic ties. Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla stated that "Recognition by Israel is one of the greatest achievements for Kosovo, coming at a key moment for us, thanks to the United States of America, our common and eternal ally." 

But why would Israel and Kosovo be recognizing each other only now, when the province declared its independence from Serbia back in 2008, and has been itching for Israeli recognition ever since?

How does Israel’s relations with Kosovo fit into the broader picture of its history of relations with states, and with substate minorities, across the Balkans?

And how have the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Holocaust memory and the rise of nationalism played their part in relations between the Jewish state and the Balkans, a particularly charged part of the complex diplomatic calculus of this part of Europe?

This month’s Kosovo-Israel signing was one of the stranger, left-field consequences  of a deal inked last September between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia at the White House in the presence of then-President Donald Trump. 

Trump with the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS

That White House deal seemed like a sensible step towards normalizing troubled relations in the Balkans. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed separate agreements with the United States on "economic normalization" and the lifting of hiked tariffs on Serbian goods entering Kosovo.

Priština had earlier imposed a 100 percent tariff on Serbian goods in an attempt to force Belgrade to recognize its sovereignty and end its diplomatic pressure campaign to get countries to rescind their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. 

Many of us in the Balkans were puzzled that a major clause in an intra-Balkans agreement was, in fact, that Belgrade would commit itself to opening a trade office in Jerusalem and to relocate its embassy there, while Kosovo and Israel agreed on mutual recognition. Where had the issue of Israel suddenly sprung from? 

Most immediately, this strange linkage was straight out of Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ handbook. It echoed other transactional, popular-with-the-base pro-Israel foreign policy moves, such as the Trump administration forcing the strange cohabitation of Sudan’s removal from the U.S. terrorism list with Khartoum opening a process of normalization with Israel, and the simultaneous U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara with Rabat re-opening diplomatic relations with Israel.  

But there are a number of other reasons for Israel-Kosovo ties coming to fruition now, and it’s the result of a process harking back to the Cold War, when the dominant  Balkan state was Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s relations with Israel during the Cold War were not the coziest. Socialist Yugoslavia was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement and an active supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hundreds of Palestinian and Arab students studied at universities throughout the country, including at military academies. So strong was Yugoslavia’s solidarity with Arab states that Belgrade severed ties with Israel in 1967 following the Six Day War. 

Then came the collapse of communism, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the 1990s wars.

Israel’s foreign policy towards newly independent states, particularly Muslim majority Bosnia and Kosovo, was ambivalent, to say the least, including during the bloody civil wars in which Balkan Muslims were the targets of atrocities and genocide.

A torn poster of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 while on trial for war crimes, on a wall in downtown Belgrade.Credit: AP

Professor Igor Primoratz, who once taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, notes more critically that, "All Israeli governments since the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia have adopted a consistently pro‐Serbian stand. Israeli public opinion has failed to respond to Serb atrocities in a way comparable to the response in many other countries.’" 

Israel accepted a small contingent of Bosniak Muslims refugees during the 1990s, while American Jewish congressmen and Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel lobbied powerfully on behalf of Bosniak Muslims and called for an end to the genocide. However, credible reports suggest that Israel supplied mortar rounds to the Bosnian Serb army in their shelling of Bosniak Muslims and their territories.    

Under President Slobodan Miloševic, Serbia was among the first former-Yugoslav states to open an embassy in Tel Aviv back in 1992. Other countries followed suit.

At the same time, Belgrade maintained cordial relations with Arab countries such as Iraq and Libya. In fact, both Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi supported Miloševic, who depicted Bosniak Muslims and later Kosovar Albanians as ungrateful minorities wanting independence and being nothing more than American stooges. These Arab leaders in turn turned a blind eye to the genocide that was taking place in Bosnia.

A protester holds a portrait of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic at an ultra-nationalist rally against Mladic's arrest outside the Serbian Parliament on May 29, 2011 in Belgrade.Credit: AFP

A few years later, when Serbia re-oriented its killing machines towards Kosovar Albanians, Israel was again hesitant to take a firm stance against Serbia. Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only condemned the atrocities committed by Serbian forces after his initial silence was met with public outrage. 

Other high-ranking Israeli officials took a different stance, not least because out of fear of legitimizing what they saw as successionists, and the application of that legitimation closer to home. 

Netanyahu’s then foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, went as far as to condemn NATO’s military intervention in 1999, which saved Kosovar Albanians, stating, "It’s wrong for Israel to provide legitimacy to this forceful sort of intervention which the NATO countries are deploying...in an attempt to impose a solution on regional dispute…The moment Israel expresses support for the sort of model of action we’re seeing in Kosovo, it’s likely to be the next victim. Imagine that one day Arabs in Galilee demand that the region in which they live be recognized as an autonomous area, connected to the Palestinian Authority."

Despite that official stance, the Israeli army did set up a field hospital to  in neighboring Macedonia to treat ethnic Albanian refugees. 

Kosovo was still keen to court Israel. In 2007, then Prime-Minister to be Hashim Thaci, following a visit to Israel euphorically exclaimed, "I love Israel. What a great country. Kosovo is a friend of Israel," and went on to add: "I met so many great leaders when I was there – Netanyahu, Sharon — I really admire them." 

Kosovars celebrate the proclamation of Independence in Kosovo's capital Pristina on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008. Credit: AP

But the passion remained unrequited. Even after Kosovo’s independence, Israel’s position remained unchanged. In 2009, Arthur Koll, Israel’s ambassador in Belgrade, affirmed that his country would not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Despite that, in April 2019, when Kosovo’s then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj welcomed US investors to Pristina, he told his guests: "We are very proud of our cooperation with the US and the Jewish people, and Israel as a nation is a good model to follow." Similar sentiments were voiced in the same year by Kosovo’s ambassador to the U.S., Vlora Citaku, during a trip to Israel when she said that Kosovo’s people "look up to Israel as an example of how a state can be built."

Whereas Kosovo publicly courted Israel even before its declaration of independence in 2008, Serbia had the advantage of Israeli governments predisposed towards it, and for a number of years didn’t feel the need to proactively embellish those relations. And, unusually in the international arena, Serbia matched its closeness to Israel with a warm embrace of the Palestinians.

So close were Serbia and the Palestinian Authority that in January 2000 the PA, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, invited Miloševic – by then a wanted war criminal – to join the celebrations of Christian Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem. Miloševic changed his mind only last minute when Israeli authorities threatened to arrest him, as he was wanted by a UN tribunal for crimes committed against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. 

This closeness continued over the years. In 2012, Serbia was the only country in the Western Balkans to vote in favor of Palestine’s admission to the United Nations as a non-member observer. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, in New York just prior to the 2012 vote on making Palestine an observer stateCredit: REUTERS

The warmth of the rhetoric only ramped up from there. During an official visit to Ramallah in 2013, Serbia’s nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic met Mahmoud Abbas and said, "Serbia never allowed anyone to humiliate it nor to endanger its integrity, and neither will President Abbas allow anything similar to happen to the Palestinian people." Similar words of praise came from Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dačic during during an official visit to Ramallah in 2017. 

The Palestinians returned the favor. In 2019 Palestine’s ambassador to Serbia, Mohamed Nabhan, thanked Serbia for its firm support and reassured Belgrade that Palestine would oppose Kosovo’s admission to Interpol, doing its part to isolate what in other circumstances could have reasonably been expected to function as a model new state for the Palestinians. 

But Serbia never forgot Israel. 

In 2014, Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučic, who served as the head of the notorious Ministry of Information in the Miloševic regime, visited Israel and declared that Serbia is "very proud" of its friendship with Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu reciprocated: "We will never forget the role of the Serbian people in fighting Nazism. It’s a badge of honor, and one that is deeply felt in our hearts." He didn’t mention Serbia’s role in the atrocities of 1991-95. 

Then, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin paid a reciprocal visit to Serbia in 2018 on the 25th anniversary of mutual recognition and stated, "Our friendship has lasted longer than that [quarter century]. The Jewish community in the Balkans and in Serbia reaches back 2,000 years into the past.’’ 

Trade, investments and technical cooperation have increased ever since. 

However, Serbia realized it needed more than just formal relations with Israel to rebrand itself, shedding its génocidaire image with the help of an imprimatur from a state founded by survivors of the 20th century’s gravest genocide. That is why Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučic attended the annual AIPAC conference in March 2020 and announced that Serbia would open its diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv, as well as an economic office in Jerusalem, "with the Serbian official flag alongside our embassy in Tel Aviv." 

So was it the reluctance to rock the boat with a friendly Serbia that dissuaded Israel from recognizing Kosovo earlier? What else stood in the way?

A woman walks by graffiti depicting the Serbian flag and Donald Trump, vandalized with the slogan 'Kosovo in Serbia' in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 4, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovi

First of all, Israel refused to do so simply because it did not want to support a unilateral declaration of statehood, fearing it would create a dangerous precedent for the Palestinians. A number of EU states share this thinking. Likewise, Kosovo refused to recognize Israel not because its Muslim majority was opposed to it (they are in fact very pro-Israeli and pro-American), but because of the quid pro quo principle: Israel had not recognized Kosovo yet. It was a waiting game.

Secondly, Kosovar Albanians and Bosniak Muslims, because of their experience as persecuted minorities, have enjoyed the sympathies of a number of American Jewish intellectuals, politicians and organizations. Serbia, realizing this, has for years been attempting to derail this friendship by playing on the ‘Muslim terrorist’ boogeyman in the Balkans and absurdly accusing Bosnia and Kosovo of being ‘jihadi hotbeds’. 

Origami artist Arbnora Fejza Idrizi stands on an origami mosaic depicting a 1,216 square meter large Kosovan flagin the town of Srbica (Skenderaj) this month.Credit: ARMEND NIMANI - AFP

In fact, both Serbia and the Republic of Srpska (a political entity comprising 49 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina) have been courting the Israeli right over the past years and trying to depict Balkan Muslims as a common threat shared with Israel. An opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post even referred to the Republic of Srpska as a "the Jewish state’s best friend in Europe," for not recognizing Palestinian statehood at the UN in contrast to what the writer termed the "historic enmity" of Croats and Bosniaks towards Jews.

This assumption of Islam-fueled blind support for the Palestinians is another factor that led to the delayed recognition of Kosovo and the rather low-level ties with Bosnia, particularly its Muslims. 

Thirdly, so far as Israel is concerned, the time is right to recognize Kosovo now for a number of reasons. The so called ‘peace process’ with the Palestinians is effectively dead; support for Palestine in the Middle East is at an all-time low with many former backers of Palestine normalizing relations with Israel; there are no tangible prospects of the Palestinians declaring statehood; and finally – from a geopolitical point of view – Israel sees it fruitful to establish a stronger foothold in the Balkans as the region is strategically located. 

Israel's Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi at a ceremony held over Zoom with his counterpart from Kosovo marking the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Kosovo.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Israel is essentially resuscitating its ‘periphery doctrine’ and forging alliances with non-Arab Muslim states in order to circumvent neighborhood hostility. 

So despite the incongruity of Israel appearing in a U.S.-brokered Kosovo-Serbia accord, all four sides won – Kosovo got another country to recognize it; Israel won recognition from a Muslim majority country; the late Trump’s administration scored a much needed point of its foreign policy scoresheet; and Serbia got Kosovo to lift its tariffs and taxes. 

For Serbia in particular, the agreement was a model example of transactionalism. Belgrade is running a campaign to convince countries to revoke their recognition of Kosovo, but made an exception for Israel, a clearly tactical move to gain the sympathies of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., a mode of thinking the Trump administration actively encouraged. 

Firmly in the Serbian imagination, if not in reality, Israel is a door from the Balkans to a potential bonanza of investors and investments, not to mention offering another welcome layer of whitewash on the uglier parts of its recent history.

Harun Karcic is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern influence in the region. Twitter: @HarunKarcic

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