Up until 3 years ago, Israel and Serbia had excellent relations. In fact, the Serbian government at the time was one of the most pro-Israel in Europe, they were even prepared to move their embassy to Jerusalem in 2020. All that was destroyed after Israel suddenly decided to recognize the ‘Republic of Kosovo*’.
The ‘Republic of Kosovo*’ is a separatist entity akin to the short lived Donestk and Lugansk People’s Republics , the only difference is the Muslim Albanian separatists have far greater backing from most Western countries. It remains, according to the UN, a province of the Republic of Serbia.
The self proclaimed, so-called republic of Kosovo*, came about as a result of NATO’s military intervention in 1999 against FR Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro at the time). A few years earlier, Albanian separatists had started a violent war of secession against Serbia. In March 1999 NATO decided to intervene on the side of the Albanian separatists by attacking FR Yugoslavia until they were forced to withdraw from the province of Kosovo. This was all done under the guise of a so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’. Over 2000 civilians were killed in the NATO intervention and over 200,000 Serbs and others were forced to flee Kosovo due to persecution by Muslim Albanians during and after the war. At the time the Israeli foreign minister was vociferously against the NATO intervention.
In 2008, after a 9 year UN administration in Kosovo, the Muslim Albanians unilaterally declared independence and for many years after, Israel refused to recognize them. For some reason, in September 2020 Israel decided to change their long-standing policy and recognize the so-called Republic of Kosovo.
Israel’s recognition was done as part of the so-called ‘Washington Agreement’ between Serbia and Kosovo*. The deal was meant to reduce tensions, but it now amounts to almost nothing as the political situation on the ground has only gone from bad to worse. The deal was rushed through a few weeks before Trump’s reelection bid in 2020 and solved nothing in the long term. As part of that agreement there was a clause which said that Israel should recognize the so-called Republic of Kosovo, and that both entities* move their embassy to Jerusalem.
Serbia made it abundantly clear that it was only willing to move their embassy on the condition that Israel continue to acknowledge Serbia’s full territorial integrity and not recognize the so-called Republic of Kosovo. Many Israeli diplomats were also against the move such as former Israeli Ambassador to Serbia Arthur Koll.
One major reason Israel originally refused to recognize Kosovo* was that they didn’t want other countries to unilaterally recognize the so-called state of Palestine. By recognizing Kosovo, Israel is engaging in a huge double standard.
At the time, much was made of the fact that in Kosovo* Israel was gaining a new Muslim ally that would be the first Muslim state to move its capital to Jerusalem. It was marketed in a similar way to the so-called Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the UAE and was supposedly going to improve Israel’s image in the Muslim world. In reality, the small, corrupt and impoverished entity of 1.8 million people, known as ‘The Republic of Kosovo*’, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, has virtually no sway and influence in the wider Muslim world, and thus brought about approximately zero benefit.
Israel’s recognition of Kosovo* did not only serve absolutely no diplomatic purpose, it was a poison chalice that shot Serbian-Israeli relations in the foot. After Israel’s recognition of Kosovo*, Serbia withdrew its ambassador to Israel and relations have been severely damaged for the last 3 years.
Economically, Israel’s decision to recognize Kosovo* made no sense either, Serbia (excluding Kosovo), exports about 120 times more than Kosovo* and has an economy 7 times larger. Just before Israel recognized Kosovo*, Serbia was on the verge of signing a major arms contract with Israel in 2020, which may have fallen through due to Israel’s change of stance about Kosovo*.
At the stroke of a pen in September 2020, Israel truly shot itself in the foot in terms of bilateral relations with Serbia. It squandered a chance to have an internationally recognized UN member state and EU candidate country move their embassy to Jerusalem.
The Serbs have had historically good relations with the Jewish people. The Serbian government for example, was the 2nd country after Britain to give support to the Balfour declaration in 1917. During the 2nd world war, while many of the other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia such as the Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians largely welcomed and collaborated with the Axis occupation, the vast majority of Serbs were steadfast in their opposition to Nazi brutality, many among them saved or fought alongside Jews against the Nazis and their collaborators.
During the Cold War relations between Serbia, as part of Communist Yugoslavia, and Israel were somewhat strained, but since the end of the Cold War, Israel and Serbia have made great strides in improving their relationship.
A few days ago, the Israeli Foreign Minister announced, after a visit to Belgrade, that Serbia would return its ambassador to Israel after a 3 year absence. The Foreign minister Eli Cohen mentioned that Israeli-Serbian relations had been frozen for the last 3 years, but like an ostrich with his head in the sand, he did not say why, nor did he mention Kosovo. 28 years of bridge building between Serbia and Israel wrecked. For what one must ask?
Even if relations gradually improve, they will never be able to reach their fullest potential so long as Israel recognizes the separatist ‘Republic of Kosovo*’. As a Serbian diplomatic source told the Times of Israel in 2020, relations will ‘never be the same again’ if Israel recognizes Kosovo.
Although de facto control of Kosovo, for now remains out of Serbia’s hands, it remains deep within the hearts of the Serbian people. Kosovo for the Serbs is truly the beating heart of their nation and identity just as Jerusalem is for the Jews.
I urge Israel to reverse its short-sighted policy change on Kosovo* in order truly rebuild an alliance with Serbia and to have a more morally consistent foreign policy.
One must ask, what geopolitical benefits did recognizing Kosovo* actually bring Israel?
*Kosovo is a province of Serbia according to the United Nations, a separatist republic was declared unilaterally in 2008 known as ‘The Republic of Kosovo, but is not recognized as a separate country by 92 of its 193 member states.