A new era for Kosovo-Israel relations

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)
(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

A few months ago I argued in Jerusalem Post why the time was ripe for Israel to finally move towards recognizing the independent and sovereign Republic of Kosovo.

At the time Israel had just officialized its new unity government and there were some small indications that positive developments could be expected in the near future. Yet, this week’s sudden announcement that the two countries agreed to mutually recognize each other went beyond all timelines and expectations. Surprisingly enough, the long overdue Israeli recognition of Kosovo came tangentially, while American officials were mediating to get Kosovo and Serbia to normalize relations with each other.

In coordination with the United States and other Western countries, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO intervened to stop Serbian atrocities against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. Almost one million Albanians were expelled from their houses as part of Serbia’s genocidal campaign in the 1990s. More than 10,000 were killed and butchered during the conflict, and tens of thousands of women were raped by Serbian soldiers and militias. To this day, about 1,700 Kosovo Albanians are still missing.

Unfortunately, real reconciliation in the Balkans has been impeded by Serbia’s failure to own its past. Kosovo’s independence has been confirmed to be in full compliance with international law by the International Court of Justice, but Serbia has repeatedly refused to accept it and acknowledge its crimes.

A meeting at the White House between the leaders of the two Balkan countries last week resulted in a set of principles described as “economic normalization” by President Trump, who presided the signing ceremony at the Oval Office. Yet, with mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia still failing to materialize, the biggest news of the day was the unexpected recognition of Kosovo from Israel.

As it became clear that there would be no major breakthrough in the diplomatic relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, the U.S. boosted Kosovo’s standing by facilitating Israel’s recognition. The recognition by the Jewish state is particularly important because it reinforces the fact that Kosovo is a sui generis case in the international arena. The countries that still do not recognize Kosovo’s irreversible independence, including five EU member states, have no legal nor moral justification for refusing to accept reality and continuing to hinder peace efforts.

Israel has always sympathized with Kosovo and the painful history of its people but, due to pragmatic calculations, it hesitated to establish official relations with Prishtina. However, a new reality is emerging in the Middle East that seems to have contributed to changing Israel’s calculus. The U.S.-brokered normalization agreement with the UAE and the improved standing in the neighbourhood and international arena have increased Israel’s confidence. Most importantly, U.S. pressure and guarantees put an end to its hesitation and paved the way for the historic decision.

The announcement in Washington has certainly nothing to do with the Middle East peace process. However, the establishment of new embassies in Jerusalem furthers Israel’s international standing. Kosovo maintained its pledge and confirmed that it plans to put its embassy in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed the confirmation and highlighted that this would be the first case of a “first Muslim-majority nation to open an embassy in Jerusalem”. But while Kosovo has indeed a Muslim majority population, it brings much more than that to the table. Kosovo is a secular state and Kosovo’s society is defined by religious pluralism and tolerance. Kosovo cherishes its Muslim and Christian traditions and is adamant in its commitment to protecting all communities and religions, including its small Jewish community.

Albeit the youngest state in Europe, Kosovo’s liberal and democratic values set an example in a region that shows much deficiencies. More than the symbolic gesture of the embassy, Kosovo and Israel will now have the opportunity to build this new relationship on these shared values and principles.

Importantly, there is a great potential for cooperation in economic, commerce, education, and security issues between the two countries. Kosovo is open for investments and the establishment of relations will present new opportunities for Israeli investments, especially in the growing IT and energy sector.

Considering Kosovo’s recent efforts to promote its startup scene, there is a lot that Israel can offer. A vibrant and young nation, Kosovo’s people are keen to learn from the best on innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.

The historic decision to recognize Kosovo benefits peace and confirms that Israel stands on the right side of history. Now, a new era presents itself for furthering these newly established bilateral relations and for more Israeli engagement in the Balkans.

About the Author
Akri Çipa is a consultant and foreign policy expert focused on Balkan affairs. He holds a Master of Science in Conflict Resolution from Columbia University in New York. Twitter: @AkriCipa
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