TEL AVIV — Thirty years ago, in 1989 — even as the Berlin Wall fell and communist regimes were collapsing across Eastern Europe — tiny Albania was still an isolated Marxist dictatorship that preached hate against the imperialist Americans and their allies, including Israel.
But these days, the Muslim-majority republic proudly ranks itself among Israel’s best buddies in the Balkans.
Last week, in fact, Albania’s ambassador to the United States, Floreta Luli-Faber, toured Israel along with seven other Washington-based diplomats on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. At the same time, the AJC’s chief executive, David Harris, led a diplomatic mission to Albania that included meetings with President Ilir Meta, Prime Minister Edi Rama and other dignitaries.
All this high-level activity should come as no surprise, said Bardhyl Canaj, Albania’s envoy to Israel for the past three years and nine months.
“The more I know Israel, the more I love it here,” said Canaj, 59, who moved to Israel in October 2015 with his wife, Alma. He oversees a staff of three, including a non-resident military attaché.
“Back during communism, the regime considered all allies of America enemies and puppets of imperialism,” said Canaj, interviewed at the Albanian Embassy in suburban Ramat Gan over coffee and glasses of Skanderbeg brandy. “And because of the situation in the Middle East — under Russian and then Chinese influence — we had to be pro-Arab. But things changed dramatically once democracy was established in 1991.”
That year, Albania and Israel established relations for the first time. Yet it took another 21 years to actually establish an Israeli Embassy in Tirana, the capital — despite Albania’s fame during World War II as a haven for persecuted Jews. It’s no secret that mountainous Albania, which is slightly larger than Israel, was the only Nazi-occupied country in Europe that found itself with more Jews after than war than before.
Diplomacy and business
In fact, despite their government’s harsh anti-Zionist rhetoric during the long dark years of the paranoid Enver Hoxha dictatorship— which lasted from 1944 to 1985 — the Albanians themselves have never harbored ill feelings against the country’s 300 or so Jews. When the communists were overthrown in the early 1990s, virtually all those Jews emigrated to Israel; today, they and their descendants here number about 550, according to community leader Felicita Jakoel.
Canaj, who has a political science degree from the University of Tirana, spent four years as a professor there in the mid-1980s, then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was sent to Cairo as first secretary of Albania’s embassy in Egypt.
That’s when this budding diplomat met Israelis for the first time — and totally by coincidence.
“In 1989, the governor of El-Arish had invited us to Sinai and showed us the border. That’s when I saw the Israeli flag,” said Canaj, who is fluent in English and Arabic, among other language. “At my hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, I was drinking coffee and saw two ladies swimming in the pool. I asked them what language they were speaking, and they replied, ‘Hebrew. We are journalists from Israel.’”
Canaj eventually became an Albanian government adviser on Balkan and Middle East issues while launching a family pharmaceutical business with partners from Kosovo; he later opened the Albanian market to Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals, and then established a second business representing Ahava, the leading producer of Dead Sea cosmetics.
“One day, I received a phone call from Irit Ben-Aba [then Israel’s non-resident envoy to Albania, now ambassador to Greece] saying she was coming to Albania, and that she wanted to invite me for dinner,” the diplomat recalled. “By the end of the dinner, she proposed that I become Israel’s first honorary consul in Albania.”
Israel’s man in Tirana
Canaj accepted, and for the next seven years — in the absence of an actual Israeli Embassy — he served as Israel’s de facto ambassador in Tirana.
“I was involved in every diplomatic and cultural effort between the two countries and hosted many dignitaries from Israel,” he recalled. “They gave me full status, even the power to issue visas in coordination with the Israeli Embassy in Athens. We worked for six months to find a good location for a new embassy in Tirana, and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed that I be a member of the staff.”
Canaj was promoted to director of the Israeli Embassy’s economics department and served in that capacity until 2015, when his own government nominated him to become Albania’s sixth ambassador in Tel Aviv.
“My experience gave me the opportunity to make friends and connections in the Israeli business community and in political and academic circles,” he said “So it was very easy for me to come here.”
Besides the embassy in Ramat Gan, Albania has three honorary consuls here: one serves Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and central Israel, one covers northern Israel and the Galilee from Haifa, and one covers southern Israel and the Negev from Eilat. Likewise, businessman Rodolf Xhillari is Israel’s honorary consul in Tirana, home to most of Albania’s dozen or so Jews.
Tourism: The ‘big prize’
Canaj said 54 Israeli companies currently operate in Albania, including drip-irrigation leader Netafim as well as Haifa Chemicals Ltd., Hazera Seeds Ltd. and Top Greenhouses. In addition, Israeli IT and telecom firms run three call centers in the Balkan country, which is home to about 3 million people. All Tuborg beer sold in Albania is produced by an Israeli company, while Haifa-based Zim ranks as the country’s second-largest shipping firm.
In all, Israeli companies have invested about $40 million in Albania, while bilateral trade comes to roughly $85 million a year. Likewise, some Albanian companies have begun exporting their products to Israel, including cheese, intimate ladies’ wear and wooden frames.
But the “big prize” for Albania, he said, is tourism.
In 2017, about 4,700 Israeli tourists visited Albania. Last year, thanks to the inauguration of direct charter flights between Tel Aviv and Tirana, that number jumped to 15,200 — and this year, Albania expects to receive more than 24,000 Israelis.
For now, Israir offers charter flights three times a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays — to Albania from late April to late October. Prices run about $580 for packages that include round-trip airfare, lodging at a five-star hotel, breakfasts, dinners and transfers.
Canaj said Israelis are mainly interested in visiting the historic cities of Berat, Vlora and Saranda; they’re also into bicycle and jeep tours.
“We’re getting excellent feedback from the Israelis who have traveled to Albania: great value, a new destination and beyond all, friendly people,” Canaj said, adding that Albania’s Ministry of Tourism — through his embassy — is negotiating closely with Israir to extend its charters to year-round service.
The Kosovo conundrum
Despite Albania’s friendship with Israel, Canaj said his embassy won’t be relocating from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem anytime soon — even though Kosovo promised to open an embassy in Jerusalem should Israel decide to formally recognize it.
“Albania maintains the same position as the EU: We support Israel’s security and believe this conflict must be resolved through negotiations under the two-state formula,” he said, noting the sensitivity of the issue of Jerusalem’s final status to both Israelis and Palestinians.
“But bilateral cooperation remains strong,” he added. “We supported Israel when it wanted to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, even though Israel withdrew at the last minute. We have also condemned all attacks by Hamas and have joined many initiatives against anti-Semitism in both the UN and the EU.”
Another sensitive issue Canaj follows closely is the ongoing effort by neighboring Kosovo to win Israeli recognition of its sovereignty. Since the Albanian-speaking country unilaterally declared independence from Serbia 11 years ago, 116 countries have established relations with Kosovo — but not Israel.
Like the Albanians, the Kosovars — 99% of whom profess Islam — also hid their Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Today, Kosovo is home to just 56 Jews, and efforts are underway to establish a synagogue and Jewish museum in Prizren, the country’s second-largest city.
In March, a U.S. business delegation visited Kosovo and met with dozens of business executives who envision their country as the Balkan “start-up nation,” copying Israel’s entrepreneurial success in the software and IT sector.
‘Yes, but not yet’
Even so, Kosovo’s best diplomatic efforts haven’t led to official bilateral relations.
In April 2017, Canaj said, Israel’s Foreign Ministry — after lengthy negotiations — did authorize Kosovo to open an economic and cultural office in Israel.
“Secondly, there was a special Interpol conference in Dubai, and Israel gave the green light for Kosovo to join, even though it wasn’t approved,” he explained. “Third, at the moment, 11 Israeli companies are operating in Kosovo. As far as I know, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is in close contact with Kosovo and is discussing all the issues. Last week, Kosovo declared Hezbollah a terrorist group that wants to destroy Israel. This was very much appreciated, not only by Israel but by all Jewish organizations.”
Canaj dismisses the usual argument that the Jewish state doesn’t want to upset Serbia, which considers Kosovo a breakaway province with no right to independence. Nor does he buy the idea that recognizing Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent for Israel with regard to Palestinian self-determination.
Nevertheless, he remains optimistic.
“Israel’s position basically is ‘yes, but not yet.’ Kosovo has to complete its negotiations with Serbia under the EU umbrella and find solutions for all their problems,” he said. “We hope that process will be finished as soon as possible.”