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Trump and Netanyahu’s Barefaced Gaslighting on the Israel-Kosovo Deal

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 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 4, 2020
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 4, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

The announcement that Israel and Kosovo have agreed to establish diplomatic relations is a welcome development for both nations. But as is often the case with Israel's leadership, this development is not only long overdue, but was also made for the wrong reasons.

Moreover, framing it, as senior American and Israeli officials have done, as yet another win for Israel within the Arab and Muslim world, is a cynical spin that constitutes nothing less than diplomatic gaslighting.

Since Kosovo has declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, it has won wide international recognition. Among those who recognized it have been the United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. Unfortunately, and despite Kosovar efforts to win over Israel and forge diplomatic relations with it, Israel refused to do so. Until now, that is.

Israel's refusal to recognize Kosovo stemmed from a host of reasons, most of which reflect a deeply-seated anxiety over an imaginary parallelism between Kosovo and Palestine, including:

Fear over the dangerous precedence of unilateral declaration of independence: Jerusalem regarded Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence as a dangerous precedent, one that would undercut its own ongoing case against a similar move by the Palestinians.

Anxiety over internal Arab-Palestinian secession: Jerusalem worried that recognition of Kosovo might help establish a universally applicable precedent for unilateral secession, one that could encourage Israel's internal Arab-Palestinian minority – especially in the Galilee – to secede. (Of course, on this Israel was not alone. Other countries that have withheld recognition from Kosovo – notably, within the European Union, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania – all share the same anxiety.)

Concern over the validity of an internationally-imposed solution: Since Kosovo's independence was imposed on Serbia from the outside, Jerusalem was apprehensive lest a perception of success on Kosovo should bolster the resolve of the international community to try and impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Additional reasons include strategic calculations vis-à-vis Russia (Serbia's age-old patron, which has strongly opposed Kosovo's independence), and sheer and plain islamophobia. As Aryeh Eldad, the former right-wing member of Knesset, claimed shortly after Kosovo's declaration in 2008, "The flag of Kosovo is that of Islamic proliferation and a source of serious anxiety to Europe."

Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at a White House signing ceremony with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump. September 4, 2020.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

The fact that the Netanyahu government has now decided it was ready to recognize Kosovo is due, first and foremost, to American pressure (a desire by the White House to boast another diplomatic victory, along with the announcement that Serbia would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem). But Israel's decision to yield to American pressure also reflects the fact that the traditional reasons that have prevented it from recognizing Kosovo until now have lost their force. 

After all, the Palestinians' standing on the global stage is at a new low point in years. Accordingly, they are in no position to declare their independence, and even if they did – as they threatened to do in response to Israeli annexation – their action would probably not win universal support.

At the same time, secessionist sentiments among Israel's Arab-Palestinian population increasingly appear to have no real bearing on the ground. Indeed, as evidenced by the uproar created by the clause in Trump's "Peace to Prosperity" plan that would allow for the transfer of areas within the so-called Triangle to the future state of Palestine, Israel's Arab-Palestinian population are more focused on enjoying full equality within Israel than in seceding from it.

Finally, concern over an internationally-imposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has significantly dissipated over the past few years. The world is suffering from acute Middle East fatigue, and no such threat seems imminent under either President Trump (whose plan for solving the century-old conflict has turned out to be vehemently anti-Palestinian) or the Democratic contender, Joe Biden, should he win the November election.

Not only does Israel's decision to recognize Kosovo come 12 years too late, therefore, it also seems motivated by the wrong reasons. Concern over the perceived parallelism with Palestine betrayed an Israeli anxiety rather than a clear-headed policy – one, moreover, that the Serbs themselves capably fueled by publicly proclaiming that "Kosovo is our Jerusalem." 

This and more, contrary to statements by the U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan, the breakthrough between Israel and Kosovo cannot be couched within the larger effort to bring peace between Israel and the Muslim world.

Doing so is a cynical spin that gaslights the fact it is Israel that has refused to recognize Kosovo all these years, not Kosovo that has refused to recognize Israel.

That Kosovo's population is a majority-Muslim nation must not turn into yet another conquest for Trump or Netanyahu. Turning it into one, and hailing it "Another great day for peace [in the] Middle East," as President Trump has done, denigrates its historical and geographical significance and undermines the very spirit that Israel's agreement to recognize Kosovo should, at long last, usher. 

Yonatan Touval is a senior foreign policy analyst at Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Twitter: @Yonatan_Touval

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