Fundamentally Freund: Say ‘no’ to Kosovo

In recent weeks, a number of commentators have urged Israel to recognize the independence of Kosovo, the renegade province which has been seeking to break away from Serbia.

(Michael Freud, The Jerusalem Post) Wednesday, July 10, 2013

In recent weeks, a number of commentators have urged Israel to recognize the independence of Kosovo, the renegade province which has been seeking to break away from Serbia. Marshaling arguments ranging from history to human rights, proponents of such a move have sought to make the case that it is in the Jewish state’s national interest to join the nearly 100 other countries that have already done so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since Kosovo’s parliament unilaterally declared it was seceding from Serbia on February 17, 2008, Israel has stood firm in its principled refusal to back the dangerous gambit of the Kosovars, and there is no good reason for this to change. Indeed, bilateral ties between Belgrade and Jerusalem have grown increasingly close in recent years, building on more than seven centuries of close and intimate relations between Serbs and Jews. This was evident during Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic’s visit to Israel at the end of April, when he held a series of warm meetings with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. On the tourism and commercial front, the situation has also improved. Since the abolition of visa restrictions between the two countries in September 2009, the number of Serbian tourists visiting Israel has more than tripled. And Israeli firms have invested over a billion euros in a variety of fields ranging from real estate to technology. If Israel were to recognize Kosovo, it would set back our relations with Serbia and deal a major blow to this important friendship. Given the fact that Serbia is likely to join the European Union within a decade, and that it sits at the crossroads between East and West, our national interest dictates that we cultivate ties with Belgrade rather than complicate them by embracing Kosovo. Moreover, in light of the encouraging progress that has been made of late in talks between Belgrade and Pristina, it would be foolhardy for Israel to interfere with the delicate negotiating process by recognizing Kosovar independence. Just over two months ago, Belgrade and Pristina reached an agreement – the first of its kind - under which the two sides agreed not to block each others’ efforts to seek EU membership. And on Thursday of last week, Kosovar leader Hashim Thaci met with Serbian premier Ivica Dacic in Brussels for further talks. This prompted EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to announce that concrete steps had been taken by the two sides “towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations.” After so many years of conflict, Serbs and Kosovars are conducting direct negotiations. If Israel and other countries were to recognize Kosovo now, it could inflame tensions and damage the fragile prospects for further reconciliation. The status of Kosovo can best be resolved by the parties themselves, without international interference. And then, of course, there is the question of historical justice, of right and wrong. Kosovo is to Serbs what Judea and Samaria are to Jews: the cradle of the nation, the place where it all began. Over 800 years ago, Kosovo was the heartland of Serbia, and it served as its spiritual and administrative epicenter until the fateful Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks vanquished the Serbs and their allies. Eventually, migrants from Albania displaced the Serbian residents of the area, and they now constitute the majority of Kosovo’s population. But the province’s territory is dotted with ancient Serbian churches, monasteries and monuments. For Serbs to give away Kosovo is akin to carving out a piece of their heritage and their collective soul. Israeli recognition of Kosovo would only serve to set a dangerous precedent, one that could easily be turned around and used against us. After all, if Kosovars can unilaterally split apart Serbia to create their own country, why can’t Palestinians in Judea or Israeli Arabs in the Galilee do the same? Hence, it is most definitely not a wise move for the Jewish state to confer legitimacy on Kosovo. Finally, at a time of rising Islamic extremism around the globe, including in the incendiary Balkans, is it really in the interests of Israel and the West for yet another majority-Muslim state to arise on southern Europe’s flank? Reports in recent years have indicated that radical Wahabis as well as the Iranians have been looking to gain a stronghold in Kosovo, which is over three-quarters Muslim. An independent Kosovo under the sway of Middle Eastern extremists will only increase the risk of further Balkan instability down the road. Serbia is an important friend of Israel and it has made enormous strides over the past decade, building a vibrant democracy and opening itself to the West. These steps should not now be repaid by forcing Serbs to accept the unjust breakup of their country. Thus far, most Asian, African and South American nations have steadfastly refused to recognize an independent Kosovo. Despite what the critics might say, so too should Israel.