Israel Must Recognize Kosovo

Israel must remain faithful to the principles of self-determination on which it was founded and be the 100th country to recognize Kosovo. Not just for Kosovo's sake - but for its own,

Adar Primor
Adar Primor
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Adar Primor
Adar Primor

Gazimestan, Kosovo – This is where it all began. On these magnificent green fields. In this wide valley with an endless horizon. Only 10 kilometers from the capital, Pristina.

Now there’s total silence here. But one simply has to close one’s eyes and recall the historic photos of the excited crowd of around a million people, rhythmically chanting “Slobo, Slobo,” and waving a sea of Serbian flags. Then there was “Slobo” himself, Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Serbia, skipping up the steps to the stage facing the valley and delivering here – on June 28, 1989 – his seminal nationalist speech. That speech was considered the opening shot that ignited four wars in the Balkans, wars that killed a quarter of a million people.

This was the place where, 600 years earlier, the Ottoman Empire defeated the medieval Serbian kingdom. Milosevic’s address aimed to erase that historic disgrace. But it was soon to be replaced by a different disgrace, that of Slobo himself, would earn the epithet “butcher of the Balkans,” responsible for the worst war crimes in Europe since World War II.

Commentators have recently speculated on the number of times Milosevic has turned in his grave. His successor, current President Tomislav Nikolic, who once declared “Without Kosovo, there is no Serbia,” Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, Milosevic’s onetime spokesman, and his deputy, Aleksandar Vucic, also a former rabid nationalist, are all backing a historic normalization agreement that was signed in April with the “rebellious province” that five years ago declared its independence.

They didn’t sign with great joy. Their desire to join the European Union was the primary reason. Serbian leaders continue to argue that recognizing the Kosovo government is not the same as recognizing its independence. But most people see in this a de facto recognition that will lead in the future to de jure recognition; it’s a move that brings Belgrade closer to the United States, to most of the EU nations, and all in all, to the 99 countries that have already recognized the independence of Europe’s youngest country.

Israel has yet to do so. “We will not be the first or the last to recognize Kosovo,” Israel said at the time. Here were its reasons:

Fear of Islamization and anti-Semitism: Back in 1999 Ariel Sharon was already expressing concern that Kosovo would become an Islamic terror center in Europe. Indeed, foreign governments like those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran are trying to penetrate the young country. In the city of Mitrovica, which is split between Serbs and Albanians, one can see the active rebuilding of a mosque that was destroyed during Milosevic’s time. The Turkish flag flies above the nearly completed dome. There are rumors that men are being paid to grow beards.

But despite the rumors, few beards can be seen, nor are many heads covered. Girls wearing modern clothing are a common sight in Pristina. Alcohol is sold freely and the euro is the legal currency.

“Our face is toward Europe,” Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj told us. “That’s why there’s no chance of Islamization.”

The minister’s spokesman even described a phenomenon of more and more young people exploiting the country’s independence to abandon Islam, which had been imposed on the region by the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries. The orphaned Orthodox Church that Milosevic had started to build in Pristina will be turned, ironically, into an opera house. Nearby a new Catholic cathedral is quickly going up, to be named for Mother Teresa.

What about anti-Semitism? Once again, the fears have proved unfounded: Votim Demiri, the head of the Kosovo Jewish community (which has 56 members) says the government has made a concerted effort to make the Jews feel welcome. Two weeks ago a monument was dedicated in Pristina to commemorate Kosovo Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Even more important, the young country has recognized Judaism as an official religion and is working to restore Jewish property to the community.

Fear of the domino effect: In an interview with Haaretz on the eve of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic warned against a domino effect that could undermine the stability of the Balkans, bring to the surface both “dormant” and new disputes in the world and affect Serbia’s efforts to integrate into Europe.

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci answered this concern in a separate interview: “Kosovo is a unique case and, as a result, its independence doesn’t set any precedent. On the contrary; its freedom will be a cornerstone of stability for the Balkans, which will enter an era of cooperation and peace.”

From the perspective of five years hence, it’s clear: Thaci was right, and Jeremic (and Israel) were mistaken.

Today Kosovo, tomorrow Palestine? The Kosovars have repeatedly tried to shake off any equation that puts them on the side of the Palestinians and Israel on the side of Serbia. The equation is actually reversed, insists Hoxhaj. The Serbs are the ones who voted to allow “Palestine” to join UNESCO. They are ingrates who have abandoned Israel, and they support United Nations recognition of Palestine.

Israel doesn’t have to keep these kinds of scores. It would also behoove it to drop the perception that the international processes that led to Kosovo’s independence could bring about an imposed agreement with the Palestinians, or even lead to support of Israeli Arabs should those in the Galilee, for example, try to secede from the state.

After all, Israel, at least officially, supports the two-state solution; Serbian policy, by contrast, insists that “it’s all mine.” The United States fought in Serbia, which is perceived as a pariah state, while it supports Israel almost unconditionally. Moreover, there is no resemblance between the demographic reality in Kosovo, in which ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of the population, and in the Galilee, whose population is mixed. No state in the world would recognize the separatist claims of Israeli Arabs.

***

On one of Pristina’s streets is an environmental sculpture that spells out the word “newborn.” It is decorated with the flags of all the countries that have recognized Kosovo’s independence. Israel’s blue-and-white flag is conspicuously absent.

In the end, Israel must remain faithful to the principles of self-determination on which it was founded. It must be part of the enlightened world, which recognizes the national aspirations of an oppressed people that, until not so long ago, had suffered massacres, rapes and ethnic cleansing.

Israel can and must be the 100th country to recognize Kosovo. Not just for Kosovo's sake – but for its own.

People hold a banner reading 'Kosovo' at a protest against the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in Belgrade, May 10, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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