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Trump Secures Long Overdue Israeli Recognition of Kosovo. But What's That Have to Do With 'Middle East Peace'?

No agreement with another country can make Israel's real challenge – its conflict with the Palestinians – vanish away to the Balkans

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Noa Landau
Noa Landau

With just two months remaining until the U.S. election, President Donald Trump is desperate to show off his accomplishments. In the area of foreign relations, that urgency translates to a strategy that can be boiled down to "Trump makes peace in the highest places."

The goal is to broker as many international agreements as possible in order to portray the president as the ultimate dealmaker, preferably over highly historic, high-profile global conflicts with the wattage to outshine the premature Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to his predecessor in the White House, former President Barack Obama.

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Israel was cast in a leading role in this drama, regardless of whether it wanted it. What’s important is that Trump’s evangelical Christian base wants it.

That’s how Israel was folded into the agreement, announced Friday, to normalize economic relations between Serbia and Kosovo. For too many years, Israel repeatedly refused to recognize the independence of Muslim-majority Kosovo. The official excuse was Serbian opposition to the move, but the deeper reason was the desire to avoid setting a precedent that could be used to justify the recognition of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence. For several years, there was talk of Kosovo opening a trade mission in Tel Aviv, but Israel maintained its refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

The problem was not Kosovo, which was very eager for that recognition. The problem was with Israel. Now, under pressure from Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reversed Israeli policy and decided to formally recognize Kosovo. In exchange, it has been claimed that Kosovo will open an embassy in Jerusalem. That contributes to the Trump-Netanyahu narrative of being on the brink of peace and normalization between Israel and the Muslim world, under American aegis – and without the Palestinians.

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

In keeping with this narrative, Netanyahu announced that Kosovo will be the “first country with a Muslim majority to open an embassy in Jerusalem. As I have said in recent days, the circle of peace and recognition of Israel is widening and other nations are expected to join it.” Trump went further, calling the move “[a]nother great day for peace” in the Middle East, mixing the Balkan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts together in a single tweet.

Serbia, which sees these agreements mainly as an economic opportunity in light of its desire to join the European Union, and which signed them with the United States and not with Kosovo, did not oppose Israeli recognition of its erstwhile breakaway republic. Aides to Netanyahu emphasized this point in order to strengthen the argument that this had been the problem all along. What's more, Serbia also promised to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem in around one year. Why only then? Presumably because Serbia wants to wait until after the U.S. presidential election before making any overly dramatic moves. And if it is admitted to the EU, that will give Serbia an excuse not to move the embassy.

Trump and Netanyahu have promised a number of times that this is just the beginning, and that additional countries will soon normalize their relations with Israel. Washington hopes to make good on that progress before the ceremony at the White House establishing ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, currently scheduled for in the next week or two. Bahrain, Sudan and Oman have been mentioned frequently as candidates for normalization, but no one imagined that Kosovo would be dragged all the way from Europe into the peace process in the Middle East. With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that additional surprises of this type are in the pipeline. After all, now there’s no telling which historic conflicts will be dragged into our region.

At the end of the day, Israel’s recognition of Kosovo is a positive step that should have been taken years ago, irrespective of the manner in which it came about. But no agreement, direct or indirect, with any Muslim country will make the Palestinians disappear into the Balkans. And that’s the real conflict that must be solved.

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