By HERB KEINON SEPTEMBER 6, 2020
Israel balked, unwilling to change a then decade-old policy of not extending recognition to the Muslim country in the heart of southeastern Europe?
In September 2018, just four months after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and both Israel and the US were keen on other countries following the American lead, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi announced that he would establish diplomatic relations with Israel and set up an embassy in Jerusalem – if Israel would recognize Kosovo.
Israel balked, unwilling to change a then decade-old policy of not extending recognition to the Muslim country in the heart of southeastern Europe.
Why not? On the surface this seemed like a great deal – Israel would get ties with a majority-Muslim (though non-Arab) country and in return have another embassy in Jerusalem (joining that of the US and Guatemala).
There were two main reasons for Israel’s pronounced lack of enthusiasm. The first, and principal reason, was because it did not want to set a precedent. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, after fighting a war with it a decade earlier.
With all the sympathy that Israel felt for Kosovo, which suffered terribly during the war – the Jewish state granted temporary refuge to some 220 Muslim Kosovar refugees – Jerusalem was concerned that if it recognized Kosovo, other countries would then use that recognition to justify their own recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state.
In fact, Palestinian diplomatic unilateralism, which has led the Palestinian Authority to seek entrance as an independent state into numerous international organizations, including the UN, has been dubbed the “Kosovo model.”
Immediately after Kosovo declared Independence, Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “Our people have the right to proclaim independence even before Kosovo. And we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence.”
When the Annapolis talks broke down the same year that Kosovo declared independence, Abed Rabbo was quoted as saying that the Palestinians had “another option” – a unilateral one. Kosovo, he declared, “is not better than Palestine.”
Israel was not alone in not recognizing Kosovo, and while the vast majority of European countries recognized the fledgling state, a handful has not, including Spain, Greece and Cyprus. They, too, did not want to give any backwind to unilateral declarations of independence, with the Spaniards worried that this might then be a precedent for countries to recognize Basque independence, and the Greeks and Cypriots worried that this would open the door to countries recognizing the independence of northern Cyprus.
A secondary reason was that Israel did not want to damage ties with Serbia, with whom it enjoyed good relations. However, this reason seemed a bit thin as Serbia continued to have good relations with other European countries even though they recognized Kosovo.
Kosovo has been keen on ties with Israel from the very beginning, both because it is a very pro-American country, and wants its policies aligned with those of the US, and because of a belief that this could help attract investments. In this diplomatic dance, Israel has been the more reticent partner.
Until Friday, when – at a signing ceremony for a deal establishing economic ties between Serbia and Kosovo signed in the White House – US President Donald Trump announced that the deal included mutual recognition by Israel and Kosovo, as well as the establishment by Kosovo and Serbia of their embassies in Jerusalem. Judging by the reaction of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the ceremony, he did not read the agreement beforehand and appeared taken by surprise by the Jerusalem announcement.
The chorus of praise for the deal from Israel was not long in coming, beginning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and including Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan.
Erdan framed this as “another breakthrough” with another Muslim country, when – in reality – relations with Kosovo were low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking for years, but which remained on the tree because Israel opted not to pluck it.
What changed Friday was Trump. The president, in the heat of a bitter reelection campaign, is keen on coming across as a peacemaker. His team did broker the recent United Arab Emirates-Israel deal, which truly is a landmark agreement, and is now interested in extending that peace-making touch to other long-simmering conflicts, like that between Kosovo and Serbia.
Having the two countries sign an agreement in the White House burnishes Trump’s prestige and presents him in the light of a skillful diplomatic dealmaker. And then being able to throw in agreement by both countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem – something that will please many in his Evangelical base – is an added bonus.
And why did Netanyahu, who took office just a year after Kosovo declared independence, go along with this move now, after not responding to Kosovo’s overtures for recognition for so long?
Because Trump wanted him to. And after all the president has done for both Israel and Netanyahu – from the Jerusalem embassy move, to withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, to recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan heights, to the “Deal of the Century” plan, to brokering the accord between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi – Netanyahu is not going to say no to the US president. Especially not if this is something Trump wants just two months before America goes to the polls.