Commentary Magazine


The Israel of the Balkans

“All we want is to reduce the Albanian population to a manageable level.” – Zoran Andjelkovic, former Serbian governor of Kosovo

Genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” – United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

The State of Israel is divided on the Kosovo question: should the world’s newest country be recognized? Some, like former Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, worry that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia might encourage Palestinians to make the same move. The small Balkan state, however, may have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelis, as Amir Mizroch notes in the Jerusalem Post, have excellent relations with the Kosovars. “Israel has an interest in helping to establish a moderate, secular Muslim state friendly to Jerusalem and Washington in the heart of southeast Europe,” he writes. Indeed, Kosovo is neither an enemy state nor a jihad state. Its brand of Islam is heavily Sufi, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Wahhabism and Salafism that inspire Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Kosovo doesn’t belong to the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. On the contrary, Kosovo has thrown in its lot with the West, and especially with the United States. Serbia’s breakaway province is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator – a main boulevard through the capital Prishtina is named after him – just as George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush are hailed as saviors in Iraqi Kurdistan. It should be no surprise then that Mizroch quotes an Israeli official who says Israel most likely will recognize Kosovo if its “influential friends” in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France, decide to do so.

Concern that Kosovo’s independence might trigger a similar declaration from the West Bank to Spain’s Basque country to Chechnya and beyond is understandable but perhaps overwrought. Bosnia declared independence without unleashing a domino effect beyond Yugoslavia. So did Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia less than two years ago. It’s doubtful the Palestinians even noticed. Hardly anyone else did. In any case, it had no effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The irrelevance of Kosovo to the Arab-Israeli conflict is underscored by the fact that not a single Arab country has recognized Kosovo. The only Muslim countries which so far have bothered are Turkey, Malaysia, Senegal, Albania, and Afghanistan. The governments of all these countries are, to one extent or another, either moderate, in the pro-Western camp, or both. All aside from Albania have sizeable ethnic minorities of their own. Turkey especially frets about its own separatists – the Kurds in the east – but still went ahead and recognized Kosovo almost instantly.

Many in Kosovo are well aware that they have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza. "Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land," a prominent Kosovar recent told journalist Stephen Schwartz. "Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?"

“Many Palestinians also nurtured a similar sympathy for [genocidal Serbian dictator Slobodan] Milosevic,” Schwartz himself wrote in Middle East Quarterly. “What may be considered the most surrealistic gesture during the entire decade of recent Balkan wars occurred six months after NATO’s bombing of Serbia: on December 1, 1999, the Palestinian Authority (PA) invited Milosevic to Bethlehem to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas. News of this invitation, although more or less ignored in the West, was reported with banner headlines in the Balkans. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said that if Milosevic accepted the invitation he would be arrested on arrival, since Israel, as a U.N. member, is obliged to fulfill arrest orders issued by The Hague tribunal, which had indicted him. The PA, not being a U.N. member, was under no such obligation. And the PA was not the only Palestinian element to vacillate over Kosovo. Earlier in 1999, the Palestinian Islamic extremist Hamas movement issued a statement, denouncing U.S. intervention to settle the Kosovo crisis as ‘hiding under the slogans of human rights to impose its power in the Balkans.’ Hamas thus echoed the allegations of Milosevic’s own media, as well as the Russians and various leftists worldwide.”

Palestinians weren’t the only Arabs to side with Milosevic against their fellow Muslims. Milosevic also had close ties to Saddam Hussein, as did Vojislav Koštunica’s democratic government that replaced him. Ed Bradley reported in 2003 that as much as three billion dollars worth of weapons, explosives, and equipment – including equipment that would bolster Iraq’s arsenal of Scud missiles – was shipped by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav arms export agency to Iraq before interception by Croatian authorities.

Israelis and Kosovars don’t merely line up on the same Western side geopolitically. They share a moral and ethical temperament with each other, one they also share with the Kurds of Iraq. All are ethnic minorities in their respective regions that wish to be left alone on their own land, untroubled by regional ethnic majorities that wish to suppress or eject them.

90 percent of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians. They lay no claim to proper Serbian land. They have no wish to seize Serbia’s capital Belgrade and ethnically cleanse it of Serbs, nor to rule over Serbs. They want sovereignty over themselves, not over others. They merely want what the other countries of the former Yugoslavia have managed to hammer out for themselves.

While almost the entire world agrees that the Palestinians must someday have a state of their own, Israel’s right to exist is still hotly debated in some quarters, just as Kosovo’s right to exist is denied by many and likely will continue to be denied. No one argues about any Arab state’s right to exist, or about the right of Serbian or Slavic states to exist. Kosovo has joined a small club.

If Albania were using Kosovo as a launching pad for a conquest of Belgrade, the Serbs would have a case for occupying their land, just as the Israelis occupied the West Bank and Gaza after a multi-state Arab assault with destructive intent in 1967. Albanians generally, and Kosovars in particular, have no such designs in store for the Serbs.

Belgrade’s current claim to Kosovo is dubious in any case. Serbia only “owned” Kosovo when Milosevic revoked the autonomy it previously enjoyed before Yugoslavia came apart. The land should be theirs, Serbs say, because Kosovo Polje is a crucial place in their history and in the emotionally-charged myths that make up Serbian nationalism. Kosovo Polje is important because Serbian leader Czar Lazar lost a war there to the Turks in the nearby Field of Blackbirds in 1389. The Arab case for their right to Tel Aviv is stronger than this.

Unlike the Jews of World War II Europe, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have a state they could move to – Albania – to flee genocide and oppression. They’re like the post-1948 Jews of the Middle East who could escape to the state of Israel. This does not, however, mean they should have to.

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