How Israel justifies sudden recognition of Kosovo that has riled Serbia

For 12 years, Jerusalem eschewed ties with Pristina to avoid endorsing a unilateral statehood bid. Now officials cite various reasons why Kosovo and Palestine are not similar

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Kosovars wave national flags as they wait to watch a military parade, during celebrations to mark the 11th anniversary of independence in Pristina, February 17, 2019.(AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Kosovars wave national flags as they wait to watch a military parade, during celebrations to mark the 11th anniversary of independence in Pristina, February 17, 2019.(AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

For more than a decade, Israel bucked a Western trend and refused to recognize the Republic of Kosovo. The US, Canada, Australia and most of Europe recognized Pristina’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, but Jerusalem didn’t — mainly because it didn’t want to support a separatist move by an ethnic majority, fearing such support could backfire should Palestinians attempt something similar.

On Friday, Israel surprisingly and without warning changed its policy, as the two states agreed to recognize each other, and Kosovo vowed to open an embassy in Tel Aviv. The announcement was hailed by the US and Israel as a great achievement for the Jewish state and indeed peace in the Middle East, but no explanation for Jerusalem’s sudden about-face was provided.

In fact, the deal — which is part of an unusual tripartite agreement with the US and Serbia — raises two key questions: Is Israel no longer worried that recognizing Kosovo would give impetus to the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood bid? And can the Kosovo-Serbia situation be compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Ramallah has always seen Pristina’s February 2008 declaration of independence — which was recognized by more than 50 countries within a year, and exactly 116 by today — as a model to be followed.

“Kosovo is not better than us,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said in 2008. “We deserve independence even before Kosovo, and we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence.”

Palestinians wave their national flag during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 29, 2012 to support Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas who is heading to the United Nations General Assembly today with huge backing for his bid for UN recognition of statehood despite strong US and Israeli opposition. Abbas will make the case for Palestine to become a UN "non-member observer state" and indicate his conditions for talks with Israel in a key speech to the 193-member assembly. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinians wave their national flag during a rally in Ramallah on November 29, 2012, to support Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for UN recognition of statehood. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

But while most of the West happily recognized Kosovo, Palestine was left empty-handed. In fact, “most states that recognize Palestine do not recognize Kosovo, and vice versa,” according to Eric Gordy, a professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Kosovo, a small Muslim-majority state in southeastern Europe, is the non-UN member with the highest number of international recognitions, while Palestine holds second place, he noted on the Balkan Insight website.

Either way, the Palestinians are now angry at Kosovo (and Serbia), and have threatened to sever ties with every country that relocates its embassy to Jerusalem. While it is unclear to what extent Balkan countries are fazed by such bluster, there is good reason to believe that Belgrade and Pristina are having second thoughts about the promised move.

US President Donald Trump watches as Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti (R) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (L) sign an agreement on opening economic relations, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 4, 2020. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

These countries made the commitment under heavy pressure from the American administration, ostensibly because US President Donald Trump and his team seek to highlight the White House’s role in promoting the status of Jerusalem ahead of the November elections.

If Trump loses, Kosovo and Serbia may feel they can drag their feet, and the new Democratic administration can be expected not to push them hard on the matter. On the other hand, the European Union is pressuring in the other direction, warning the two countries that their membership bids are at risk if they advance a policy on Jerusalem that blatantly contradicts that of Brussels.

Why did Israel get involved in the Balkans?

Jerusalem had no reason to poke the diplomatic hornet’s nest that is the conflict in the Balkans other than pleasing the US administration, Israeli officials admit in private conversations.

“I’m not sure it’s in Israel’s interest to get mixed up in this deal,” Arthur Koll, a former Israeli ambassador to Serbia, told the Media Line website this week.

“We’re paying a price by surrendering a principle of ours, a longstanding policy. It’s a step that might have future repercussions for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

But now that the political leadership has decided to end its traditional refusal to recognize Kosovo, some officials are eager to explain that the Serbia/Kosovo situation is fundamentally different from our own region’s conflict.

There are some important differences between the two cases that clearly show they cannot be compared, sources in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel this week, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the diplomatic sensitivities of the matter.

Though many countries recognized Kosovo, the officials stressed that this is was a special case arising from the unique situation of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and that it should not be considered a precedent for any other territorial dispute.

A girl walks past graffiti on a wall reading: ”Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” in Belgrade, Serbia, September 4, 2020. Trump administration officials met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti to discuss furthering relations on the economic front (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Another major difference between Pristina and Ramallah is that the former fully meets the requirements of statehood as defined by international law, while the latter does not, according to the Israeli officials. Kosovo meets all four criteria for statehood, including holding effective control over the territory, which clearly is not the case for the Palestinians, they argued.

Moreover, Kosovo did not violate its legal obligations by unilaterally declaring statehood, the officials posited. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, is bound by the Oslo Accords, which created a legal framework in which all core issues would be determined subject to bilateral negotiations and prohibits the parties from taking any unilateral step that would alter the status of the territory.

This has been true all along, so why is Israel only changing its position on Kosovo now?

Because the Serbs did, too. At least that’s what officials in Jerusalem are claiming. The political circumstances changed dramatically on Friday, when Kosovo and Serbia reached understandings with the US that also included a reference to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Kosovo, they posit.

There is just one big problem with this argument: Belgrade isn’t buying it, with the Serbs insisting they never agreed to Israel recognizing Kosovo, despite the US administration’s claims to the contrary.

“Diplomatic relations with Kosovo are one thing, recognition as an independent country is another thing entirely. This would destroy the Israel-Serbia relationship,” a Serbian source close to his country’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, told The Times of Israel this week.

A car passes by a billboard reading: ”Kosovo is the heart and soul of Serbia” placed on a street in front of the government building in Belgrade, Serbia, September 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

“This could end up being a real mess, unless there is a compromise on what sort of relationship Israel will end up having with Kosovo.”

Belgrade will not honor its commitment to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if Israel recognized Kosovo, the source warned after speaking with Vučić about the matter.

At Friday’s White House signing ceremony, the Serbian leader himself hinted that he would only move the embassy to Jerusalem if the Israelis refrained from fully recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

“We also told Israel that if they respect Serbia, then our country will move the embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

President Donald Trump listens to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speak during a signing ceremony with Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Vucic said that Israel’s decision to recognize Kosovo isn’t connected to the agreement [signed at the White House] and is Israel’s own decision, and also that Serbia’s transfer of its embassy to Jerusalem is conditioned on Israel’s respecting Serbia’s interests,” Koll, the former Israeli envoy to Belgrade, noted.

“This is a big hint that they won’t transfer their embassy at all.”

Israeli officials point out that they never said that they would formally recognize Kosovo’s independence — in public statements they merely spoke about establishing diplomatic relations — but this is of course a semantic maneuver that will fool no one.

If Israel wants to celebrate the first Muslim nation’s embassy in Jerusalem, it will have to establish full diplomatic relations with Kosovo, and that obviously includes recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state. And while that may not have direct implications for the Palestinians’ quest for statehood, it will likely have severe negative repercussions on Israel’s relationship with Serbia.

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