InterviewHoti says nations share 'similar history of survival'

Muslim-majority Kosovo wants ‘strategic partnership’ with Israel — former PM

Avdullah Hoti, who opened embassy in Jerusalem, wants Israel to open a mission in Pristina; Foreign Ministry points to budgetary constraints

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Former Kosovar prime minister Avdullah Hoti, June 14, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Former Kosovar prime minister Avdullah Hoti, June 14, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The Kosovar leader who normalized ties with Israel and opened up Pristina’s embassy in Jerusalem said on Wednesday that his country seeks a “strategic partnership” with Israel.

“That would mean working extremely closely, not only in economic cooperation and diplomatic relations and things like that, but working together and sharing information, helping each other to increase capacities in terms of security issues, strategic development,” former prime minister Avdullah Hoti, who is now in the opposition, told The Times of Israel.

Hoti, who heads the Israel parliamentary friendship group, led the delegation’s first trip to Jerusalem this week.

In 2021, Kosovo became the first European country — as well as the first Muslim-majority one — to establish an embassy in Jerusalem, following the US and Guatemala.

Pristina made the move in exchange for Israel recognizing the independence it declared in 2008, following a war with Serbia in the 1990s.

Hoti’s decision was formalized when he met alongside Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the White House in September 2020 with then-US president Donald Trump during talks about normalizing economic ties between Belgrade and Pristina.

At the meeting, Vucic also agreed to move Serbia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which it has not done so far.

US President Donald Trump signs a document 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)

Kosovo’s former premier speculated that the Trump administration included Kosovo’s embassy opening in Israel in the talks with Serbia to show the international community “that Kosovo is an independent state and the US fully supports that. And Serbia has to come to some agreement with Kosovo, there is no other way. That was the signal.”

Hoti said Israel’s recognition was “a breakthrough decision.”

“It gave the signal in the international arena that Kosovo is a country that should be respected and should be recognized,” he said.

A Kosovo worker drags the red carpet next to Kosovo’s and Israel’s flags displayed during a ceremony at the headquarters of the Foreign Ministry in Pristina on February 1, 2021 (Armend NIMANI / AFP)

Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, among others, blasted Pristina for the embassy decision.

But Hoti said outside criticism does not influence his country’s policies: “We were determined to move forward, and we have no dilemmas as long as the US is in Jerusalem. We follow the foreign policy of the US.”

Hoti recalled that the arrangement came together over a series of long-distance discussions with the White House, then two days of intensive negotiations with Serbia in Washington.

Trump “cared a lot about the agreement,” Hoti explained. “He firmly believed that that agreement would help reach a final agreement with Serbia.”

The Kosovar Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group meets with National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi in Jerusalem, June 13, 2023 (ELNET)

Though the sides have signed dozens of bilateral agreements, Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo. In February, the two countries agreed to an EU-mediated normalization process.

Kosovo continues to work to expand the circle of countries that recognize it. Over half of UN member states recognize Kosovo, as do over 80% of European Union and NATO countries.

The precise figure is hard to pin down because some countries have allegedly withdrawn recognition but haven’t provided clear answers.

Hoti and four other members of the parliamentary group met with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, MK Erez Malul, who heads the Knesset’s Kosovo friendship group, and Welfare Minister Ya’akov Margi.

Through ELNET, an organization working to build ties between Israel and Europe, the group also met with National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and with opposition MK Gideon Sa’ar, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Surviving occupation

Hoti said that Kosovo’s affinity for Israel comes from the fact that the countries share “a similar history.”

“We have been surviving for centuries under different regimes, under different occupations,” he explained. “We were 500 years under the Ottomans and close to 100 years under the Serbian regime. So we managed to survive for centuries without having our state. So in a way, we struggled a lot for centuries to have our country.”

Unlike Israel, Kosovo is locked out of the UN by Belgrade’s key allies, Russia and China.

If Pristina does join the UN, it will be a reliable pro-Israel vote, he pledged. “I have no doubt about that. We have a joint strategic interest.”

Kosovo does not have relations with the Palestinian Authority, which has been an outspoken opponent of Kosovar independence.

“Kosovo is not better than us,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, shortly after Kosovo’s declaration of independence 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.”

Embassy issues

As Kosovo works to convince other countries to recognize it, the parliamentary friendship group is working to deepen bilateral ties with Israel.

“We intend to prepare an agreement for protection of investment in the two countries, a free trade agreement and an agreement for the elimination of double taxation between the two countries,” Hoti explained.

They are also pushing a visa waiver agreement.

Illustrative: A Kosovo government official takes a self-photo during a signing ceremony held digitally, in the capital Pristina, establishing diplomatic ties between Kosovo and Israel, February 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Last week, Kosovo adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and in 2021 designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But Israel has not opened an embassy in Kosovo, instead relying on non-resident ambassador Tammy Ziv.

“We asked to have the Israeli embassy open as soon as possible,” said Hoti. “We need to have the embassy there for sure, just like we established our embassy.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said an embassy could not be opened at this time for budgetary reasons. He added that ties were expanding, pointing at the parliamentary visit and a parallel business delegation representing 12 Kosovar companies.

The Foreign Ministry, said the spokesman, “is advancing a cooperation plan in medicine, post-trauma, and agriculture.”

“The relationship between the two countries is only growing stronger.”

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