President Vučić seemed puzzled when Trump announced move

Serbia won’t open Jerusalem embassy if Israel recognizes Kosovo – Serbian source

A ‘diplomatic relationship’ with Pristina is acceptable, but full recognition would ‘destroy’ Israel’s ties with Belgrade, source says after speaking to Serbian leader

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

US 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, September 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US 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, September 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Serbia will not fulfill its promise to move its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognizes its enemy Kosovo, a source close to the government in Belgrade warned Wednesday, adding that formal recognition of Pristina’s 2008 declaration of independence by Israel would “destroy” the Jewish state’s relationship with Serbia.

“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,” the source told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Diplomatic relations with Kosovo are one thing, recognition as an independent country is another thing entirely. This would destroy the Israel-Serbia relationship,” the Serbian source said.

On Friday, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying that Kosovo and Israel had decided to “establish full diplomatic relations between the two countries.”

The arrangement was apparently a part of an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia brokered by the US administration. Serbia and Kosovo — regional rivals that don’t recognize each other — each signed separate agreements with the US regarding the normalization of economic relations between the two Balkan countries.

Belgrade, in its agreement with the US, vowed to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by July 1, 2021. The agreement with Pristina said that “Kosovo and Israel agree to mutually recognize each other.”

At Friday’s White House signing ceremony, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić mentioned that there had been a “big fight” between Serbia and the US about Israel’s recognition of Kosovo.

“They thought we should call on Israel to recognize Kosovo, and we said we couldn’t because it undermines our policy,” he said. “We said that if Israel and Pristina agree on that — fine. We also told Israel that if they respect Serbia, then our country will move the embassy to Jerusalem.”

Some analysts understood the last reference, about Israel’s need to “respect Serbia,” as an indication that the country would only relocate its embassy if the Jewish state refrained from recognizing Kosovo.

“Vučić 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,” Arthur Koll, a former Israeli ambassador to Serbia, told the Media Line website.

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

The first questions about Serbia’s commitment to opening a Jerusalem embassy came up on Friday, after Vučić was seen looking puzzled during US President Donald Trump’s Oval Office announcement that Serbia had agreed to relocate the mission within less than a year.

Video footage of a signing ceremony showed Vucic, sitting to Trump’s right, leafing through the agreement he had just signed. He then looks to his right — apparently at a standing aide — and touches his forehead in what seems like bemusement before smoothing his hair.

Rampant speculation ensued on social media that the Serbian leader did not know what he had just signed on to, but he has since clarified that was well aware of the agreement’s content.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, the Serbian source, who said he has met Vučić several times in recent days, including after the Washington ceremony, stressed that some sort of “diplomatic relationship” between Jerusalem and Pristina would be acceptable, but not a formal recognition of the Republic of Kosovo as a sovereign state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem. December 1, 2014. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO)

“I can tell you that Serbia will not move its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognizes Kosovo as an independent country,” the source said. “Moreover, this move by Israel would harm the otherwise intimate relationship between Israel and Serbia and it will never be the same. It’s that simple. Folks in Israel should understand this.”

Asked if Serbia had not tacitly agreed to Kosovo and Israel establishing relations, the source stressed that the two sides signed separate documents. “The document Vučić signed doesn’t say anything about Israel recognizing Kosovo.”

The current legal status of Israel’s recognition of Kosovo is somewhat unclear. Netanyahu said repeatedly that Kosovo and Israel had agreed to recognize each other, but no formal documents establishing diplomatic relations have been signed.

“Kosovo will be the first Muslim majority country to open an embassy in Jerusalem. As I have been saying in recent days, the circle of peace and recognition of Israel is expanding and additional countries are expected to join it,” Netanyahu said Friday.

Countries only establish embassies in countries with which they have full diplomatic relations.

Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti on Friday said he spoke to Netanyahu over the phone, and that “we agreed to establish diplomatic relations.”

The Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday announced that, “pursuant to consultations over the past two days with the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council and other elements, Israel and Kosovo will establish diplomatic relations.”

Netanyahu and Vučić are expected to speak on the phone Friday.

The Serbian Embassy in Tel Aviv did not immediately comment for this article.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said Israel welcomed Serbia’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. “This is an important and courageous step that testifies to the depth of relations between Israel and Serbia and will lead to the strengthening of friendship between the peoples,” he told The Times of Israel.

Israel greatly appreciates its ties with Serbia, which have further improved under Vučić’s leadership, he went on. “We have no doubt that this relationship will continue to deepen following the decision to move the Serbian embassy to Jerusalem.”

Israel views the decision of Serbia and Kosovo to establish embassies in Jerusalem as a “symbolic step towards promoting peace between these countries,” Haiat said.

“Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the State of Israel, will be a bridge of peace to the entire world,” he addi, calling on other countries to follow in their footsteps.

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