BY AKRI ÇIPA*
Despite Kosovo’s continuous efforts – and its people’s sincere admiration for the Jewish state – Israel has so far refused to establish relations with the youngest country in Europe. For some time now, Israel has been increasing its engagement and cultivating new relationships in the Balkan Peninsula.
However, its Balkan map continues to have a black hole.
Despite Kosovo’s continuous efforts – and its people’s sincere admiration for the Jewish state – Israel has so far refused to establish relations with the youngest country in Europe.
The new unity government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benjamin Gantz has the opportunity to finally upend this status quo and move toward recognizing Kosovo.
Clearly, Israel’s hesitation to join the almost 100 countries in recognizing Kosovo does not advance any of its interests.
In fact, there are important opportunities for collaboration between the two countries that remain unexplored. With its overwhelmingly young population, Kosovo sees Israel as a model to emulate in becoming the Balkans’ “start-up nation.”
Kosovo’s population is more than 90% ethnic Albanian and its recognition by Israel would further add to the overall excellent relations between Albanians and the Jewish people.
Israel enjoys strong ties today and is increasing cooperation in trade, tourism, and security with Albania. Kosovo would be a similar friendly environment for Israeli investors and tourists and its recognition would pave the way for economic and security cooperation.
Furthermore, the two countries share the same values and principles. Like Israel, Kosovo was founded on the universal values of democracy, liberty and freedom. A multireligious and multiethnic state, Kosovo enshrined in its declaration of independence a commitment to guaranteeing and safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all ethnic and religious minorities.
Today, the country serves as a model for many of its neighboring countries that are lagging behind in this regard. Its Jewish community, though very small, is formally recognized under the Law on Freedom of Religion and enjoys all the rights and protections as all other communities.
Twelve years after Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, Israel’s initial fears that it could be considered a dangerous precedent in the international arena were demonstrated to bear no relationship to reality.
Kosovo’s independence came as a result of a unique coordinated process led by the US and other Western governments. Although Serbia refuses to recognize it, Kosovo’s independence has been legally confirmed by the International Court of Justice as a sui generis case and in full compliance with international law. Even more importantly, it has served as a cornerstone of peace and stability in the Balkans.
By recognizing Kosovo, Israel would join most of the Western countries that already do so, including the US, Canada, Germany, the UK, as well as a majority of the United Nations’ member states.
At the same time, it would do justice to the principle of self-determination upon which Israel itself was founded.
Kosovo is in fact the history of an oppressed population that, just 20 years ago, was subjected to an atrocious ethnic cleansing campaign perpetrated by Serbia.
Without the leadership of enlightened Western democratic states like the United States and the United Kingdom we would not be talking today about a new liberal and democratic state. Instead, we would be instead talking about another genocide that would have happened in the heart of Europe less than six decades after the Holocaust.
In the 1990s, Albanians in Kosovo were subjected to the greatest displacement of a European population since the end of World War II. Of a population of less than 2 million, about 1 million Albanians were expelled from their homes and more than 120,000 houses were destroyed. Serbian crimes in Kosovo remain, to this day, still unpunished. Between 13,000- 15,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanians, were killed during the conflict. Thousands of women – up to 20,000 by most estimates – were raped by Serbian soldiers and militias.
The US-led NATO campaign that put an end to the Serbian monstrosities in Kosovo and that paved the way for the latter’s independence was greatly supported by Jewish communities across the world, especially the American Jewish community. Jewish leaders in the US were among the most important and supportive voices that advocated for the intervention that prevented a genocide and brought peace and stability to the Balkans.
Considering the historical context, the unique nature of Kosovo’s case, and the potential to build important relations, there is no reason for Israel to continue refusing Kosovo’s explicit offers of friendship.
Someone might argue that by doing so Israel risks damaging its relationship with Serbia.
It is true that Israel and Serbia enjoy good relations, but this comes despite Serbia’s close relations with and support for the Palestinians, including in numerous occasions at the UN.
Serbia’s position on the issue was reiterated, most recently, by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic. While signing an agreement for increased security cooperation with the Palestinians this past January, the Serbian minister stated that their “views on Palestine are firm and irreplaceable.” The idea that recognizing Kosovo would jeopardize Israel’s relations with Serbia is a myth – instead, establishing relations with Kosovo would level the field.
Expectations are high for the new Israeli government.
Complex domestic and international challenges have piled up and are waiting for decisive leadership and solutions.
But while most of them require great attention and energy, the new government has an excellent opportunity to gain, without much effort, a new friend in the international arena and to assert itself in a delicate yet important region like the Balkans.(The Jerusalem Post)
The writer is a foreign policy expert focused on Balkan and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds a Master of Science in Conflict Resolution from Columbia University. Twitter: @AkriCipa