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Ties That Bind, Ties That Break: The Future of Israel-Balkan Relations

If foreign policy were a for-profit business, Israel-Balkan ties would be a growth industry.

Earlier this week, Israel announced its recognition of the disputed southeastern European state of Kosovo. Not only are Israel’s relationships with the West Balkan countries tightening, particularly with Albania and the countries that made up the former republic of Yugoslavia, but the region is a training ground for the Jewish state to strengthen its diplomatic skills and become a peace broker on the world stage.

Last September, then-US President Donald Trump recognized Israel as being crucial to the agreements on economic normalization between Kosovo and Serbia, as each signed parallel documents with the US.

“Israel was able to provide something to make that deal happen,” Dr. Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “That shows the growing diplomatic power Israel has.”

“Kosovo also shows that Israel can serve as a mediator when it comes to conflicts that may be unrelated to it,” he said. “I won’t be surprised in the future if Israel becomes involved in agreements between countries far away from Israel, in terms of getting both sides to the table and providing something that both sides can get to make the agreement possible.”

Now that Israel has acknowledged Kosovo’s independence, Jerusalem has diplomatic ties with all of the Balkan countries and is generally on good terms with the powers in the region.

“Our closest ally is no doubt Serbia, but we also have very close and good relations both with Macedonia and Albania. We also very close relations with Montenegro,” Amb. Dan Orian, head of the Balkans department at Israel’s Foreign Ministry and nonresident ambassador to North Macedonia, told The Media Line.

He said that Israel’s nonresident ambassador to Montenegro, Yahel Vilan, who is based in Belgrade and is also envoy to Serbia, presented his credentials to Montenegro’s President Milo Đukanović on Tuesday, and met with the country’s Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić and Foreign Minister Đorđe Radulović on Wednesday.

Orian describes Israel’s relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina as “correct,” which he explained means “good, but less warm” due to the powerful influence of the ethnic minority Bosniaks, who tend to be less pro-Israel and more influenced by Turkey and Iran.

Israel’s recognition of the Republic of Kosovo is a major accomplishment for the latter, which declared itself a state 13 years ago.

“Israeli recognition is a very important step for Kosovo,” Dr. Faruk Ajeti, a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs who focuses on the Balkans, told The Media Line. “For two years, no new countries have recognized Kosovo, and Israel’s move might spur recognitions from new countries.”

Greg Delawie, a former US ambassador to Kosovo, also thinks other countries could follow in Israel\s footsteps and recognized the landlocked Balkan country.

“I think Israel’s recognition of Kosovo should help encourage other states who have not recognized Kosovo to follow Israel’s lead, which I think would be terrific,” he told The Media Line.

Freeman said Israel’s decision to acknowledge Kosovo as a country is also significant because it has long looked up to the Jewish state.

“Kosovo sees Israel as a model for how you build a country after war, after lots of losses …, how we can get to a strong country,” he said. “They also had their own challenges with refugees of their own with the ethnic Albanians,” he added.

Kosovo is an almost entirely Muslim nation composed primarily of ethnic Albanians. Serbia considers Kosovo an important part of its country, since it contains religiously significant locations for the Serbs. More than 10,000 people died in the 1998-1999 Kosovo War in which NATO intervened to remove Serbian forces from Kosovo.

Freeman said that Israel benefits greatly from its new ties with Kosovo and from peace in the Balkans in general.

“We have to gain, on the one hand, a new market for fields like agriculture, energy and infrastructure, as well as a new ally in the fight against Islamic extremism against Iran,” he said, adding that both Kosovo and Serbia have agreed to place Hizbullah on their terrorist lists.

“Areas that are more stable in terms of economics and politics and everything else are less likely to be used by those threatening Israel security,” Freeman also said. “We want to make sure Iran doesn’t use that instability for its own benefit … . Increasing the security of those in the [Balkans] area also increases our security over here.”

For two years, no new countries have recognized Kosovo, and Israel’s move might spur recognitions from new countries

This sentiment is echoed by Orian when talking about the agreements reached last September by the former warring sides.

“At the end of the day, any good economic steps that are happening in the Balkans are good for us, and we see this as an agreement of stabilization of the Balkans, which is good for everybody,” he said.

However, Jan Pieklo, a former Polish ambassador to Ukraine who works as an expert for the European Parliament on the Balkan countries, contends that the significance of the relationship between Kosovo and the Balkans in general is trumped by other matters.

“Kosovo and the Balkans are not the top priority of the Israeli government” and vice versa, he told The Media Line. “They have more pressing concerns closer to home.”

Austin Doehler, a former visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, agrees in part. He believes that other than Kosovo, the Balkan countries do not benefit greatly from their relationships with Israel.

“The benefits of engagement with Israel specifically, at least from my perspective, are minimal for most Balkan states. I don’t see any of them as having any of their core interests furthered by drawing closer to Israel, and if anything, it could hurt their prospects for EU membership,” he told The Media Line, adding that if the Balkan countries follow Israel’s lead on certain issues, it could hurt their chances of being accepted into the political union.

He cites as an example the countries taking Israel’s side on annexation of parts of the West Bank, a move the European Union vehemently opposes.

“I think drawing closer to Israel in itself doesn’t do much for Kosovo, but it signals its commitment to the US as its go-to partner in the West and sends a message to the EU that it’s willing to pursue its own foreign policy while the EU strings it along on questions of visa liberalization and eventual membership,” Doehler added.

I think drawing closer to Israel in itself doesn’t do much for Kosovo, but it signals its commitment to the US as its go-to partner in the West and sends a message to the EU that it’s willing to pursue its own foreign policy

He said that the Israel’s new relationship with Kosovo is not about either country.

“I would argue that this entire Israel-Kosovo issue isn’t really about Israel and Kosovo per se, but is really about the US and its relations with the two,” he said, adding that Israel’s move came “out of left field,” even though it was part of the September White House deal with Serbia and Kosovo.

“The US’s involvement in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in the first place was the Trump Administration’s clumsy attempt to get a foreign policy win to tout going into the November election,” Doehler said. “My belief is that Israel went along with its role in the matter to further ingratiate itself to the Trump Administration.”

“Likewise, Kosovo went along with it not only for that reason but also because it wants to establish diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible, especially as Serbia lobbies countries who have already established relations with Kosovo to cut them off,” he added.

The US has long been a fierce supporter of Kosovo, leading the NATO effort in 1999 to intervene in the war.

“The US has played a strong role in the Balkans for years. It has worked tirelessly since the NATO intervention of 1999 to support the aspirations of Kosovo’s people for peace, freedom, economic growth and European integration,” Delawie said.

This entire Israel-Kosovo issue isn’t really about Israel and Kosovo per se, but is really about the US and its relations with the two

He ways that Israel’s move to recognize Kosovo further advances these goals.

“I think Israel’s move will make it possible for the United States and Israel to work more closely with each other and to help realize the [aspirations] of Kosovo’s people for the benefit of all three of our countries,” he said.

Still, Israel’s growing ties with Kosovo might lead to some growing pains in its relationship with its closest partner in the region, Serbia.

Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon “criticized the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians and [Israeli lawmaker] Elyakim Haetzni described the Serbs as ‘traditional friends’ of Israel,” Jordan Dewar, a doctoral candidate in government and politics at the University of Maryland who researches the Western Balkans as well as statehood, identity and ethnic conflict, told The Media Line.

“This led to a lot of warm feelings between Serbia and Israel, but that seems likely to change with the Israeli recognition of Kosovo,” she added.

Orian acknowledged that recognizing Kosovo might hurt Israel’s relationship with Belgrade in the short term.

“No doubt that Serbia is far from happy about it. Kosovo is, as they say, ‘their Jerusalem,’” he said. “But they have many friends that recognized Kosovo, from us [Israel] to France and Germany and many others. Yes, it will for a while be harder since Serbia is very close to us.”

“We hope that they will fulfill the commitments they made in Washington. They knew that it is part of the deal,” Orian added, referring to, among other things, Serbia’s promised embassy move to Jerusalem.

Israel’s good relationship with some the Balkan countries is a bond steeped in history, grounded in actions the population took to save Jews during the Holocaust.

“Part of the reasons we have good relations with Serbia is we remember the local population there helped Jews there while World War II was raging and pro-Nazi forces were around,” Freeman said.

The same is true for Albanians.

“Albania and Israel have had historically warm relations, based partially on the fact that Albania is the only European country occupied by Axis powers to have a higher Jewish population at the end of World War II than they did before the war,” Dewar said. “The Albanians provided shelter for both Albanian Jews and Jews from neighboring countries and, in return, Israel took in Kosovar Albanian refugees from the Kosovo War in 1999.”

This is why Ajeti says that Israeli recognition of Kosovo was long overdue.

“The move was a little belated when you consider the help that Kosovo Albanians and Albanians in Albania gave to the Jewish population during the Second World War,” he said.

However, Dewar also notes that Israel and Kosovo had close ties before Israel acknowledged the latter’s independence.

Despite the lack of recognition, Israel and Kosovo have also had warm relations since Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Israel’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence came mainly because it was unilateral and the Israeli government was worried about the precedent it could set, she said.

“Kosovo has a similar ‘Startup Nation’ economic energy as Israel and has a very young and innovative population, which has led to economic exchanges especially in the areas of research and development,” she added.

The move was a little belated when you consider the help that Kosovo Albanians and Albanians in Albania gave to the Jewish population during the Second World War

Orian attributed Israel’s delayed recognition to a variety of factors, including not wanting to hurt the peace process with the Palestinians, who are opposed to recognizing Kosovo. He also noted that other countries have not recognized Kosovo out of concerns over treatment of minorities. Israel also did not immediately recognize Kosovo at the behest of Serbia.

“Israel considered recognition for many years. … There was the Serb element who, for good reasons, asked us to not take the step,” he said. “We got what I call a package deal, which the US offered to us and to Serbia and Kosovo saying that both countries would open embassies in Jerusalem,” he said. “They also committed to many other things which are important for us, including Hizbullah being on the list of terror organizations.”

As such, the Balkans provides Israel with the opportunity to accomplish more of its foreign policy goals, with the hope that other countries will emulate the region.

One of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s major priorities is having more countries move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.

As part of the “September agreement,” Kosovo promised to open an embassy in Jerusalem and, also last September, Serbia pledged at the White House to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

When Kosovo opens its diplomatic mission, it will be the first Muslim country to establish an embassy in Jerusalem.

The Balkan countries would then double, or nearly double, depending on how you count, the number of embassies in Israel’s capital. Guatemala and the United States are the only two countries that have physical embassies in Jerusalem, while Malawi and Honduras have said they will transfer their main missions from Israel’s commercial hub of Tel Aviv.

Orian hopes that Montenegro will soon establish an embassy in Israel.

However, Dr. Sidita Kushi, an assistant professor of political science at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts who specializes in the Western Balkans and transatlantic relations, also says that establishing an embassy in Jerusalem might hurt Kosovo when it comes to the EU.

“Something else to be on the lookout for is how Kosovo’s controversial decision to establish an embassy in Jerusalem will impact its relationship with EU states and with Arab countries. There is a fear that Kosovo’s decision will alienate it from Europe and perhaps even the US, two transatlantic partners that it desperately needs,” she told The Media Line.

Serbia transferring its embassy to Jerusalem would also put the country at odds with Western Europe.

When it comes to the future of Israel-Balkans relations, Dewar says that much depends on the actions of Israel and the policies of US President Joe Biden.

She believes that Serbia might pressure Israel to take back its acknowledgement of Kosovo independence, which would have consequences for the region and for Israel’s biggest ally.

“If Israel does this, it will likely damage relations with both Kosovo and Albania as well as possibly with the United States,” she said.

Something else to be on the lookout for is how Kosovo’s controversial decision to establish an embassy in Jerusalem will impact its relationship with EU states and with Arab countries

And Dewar believes that, since the Serbian leadership is the same one that led the country during its war with Kosovo and egged on violence against ethnic Albanians, if Biden pushes human rights in Serbia, Kosovo might become closer with Israel.

“Pressing the Serbian government for greater accountability [for the atrocities] could lead to Israel, as an ally of the US, naturally falling into a closer partnership with Kosovo due to both shared past tragedies and common partnerships today,” she said.

Dewar also said that the closer Kosovo gets with Israel, the worse Israel’s relationship will be with Serbia. However, this may be offset by deepening ties with the new US president.

“With the new Biden Administration in the US poised to press Serbia more on recognizing Kosovo and hopefully taking greater accountability for past crimes against humanity, Israel might be better off fostering relations with Kosovo rather than Serbia in order to keep closer ties with the new US administration,” she said.

However, Orian is more optimistic about Israel-Balkan relations.

“We signed doubled taxation agreements with North Macedonia and we are waiting for the signature on double taxation with Albania,” he said. “We are hoping to have the first meeting of the new Economic Joint Committee with Serbia, which is the highest level [of economic cooperation] we have for now in the Balkans.”