Time to Recognize Kosovo

Yonatan Touval February 2012
Op-eds / Israel and Europe

Four years ago this Friday, on Friday, February 17, 2008, the Republic of Kosovo declared its independence. This move, which followed years of failed international efforts to broker a compromise settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, won wide international recognition by all the major Western powers, including the United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Not, however, by Israel. Indeed, four years later, Israel has yet to recognize the Balkan republic. And while there are undoubtedly more pressing issues on Jerusalem’s foreign policy agenda, its failure to recognize Kosovo constitutes not only a needless diplomatic error, but a moral and historical failing as well.

It is a needless diplomatic error because, contrary to what Jerusalem thinks, such recognition will not undermine its own strategic interests. In fact, it might even advance them. The source of the error lies in a misplaced anxiety that, since Kosovo is often compared to Palestine, the diplomatic standing of the former might have dangerous implications for Jerusalem on the latter. The most anxiety-inducing implications concern the following:

A Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence: The Palestinians have threatened to declare their independence, and in the past year have sought to obtain international recognition for their statehood. Jerusalem fears that the case of Kosovo makes for a dangerous precedent, and that its own recognition of the Balkan republic would undercut its case against Palestinian independence.

Internal Palestinian secession: Jerusalem worries that recognition of Kosovo might help establish a universally applicable precedent for unilateral secession, one that could encourage Israel’s internal Palestinian minority in, say, the Galilee, to secede. (On this, Jerusalem is not alone: Other countries that have withheld recognition from Kosovo – notably within the European Union: Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania – all share the same anxiety. )

The validity of an internationally imposed solution: Since Kosovo’s independence was imposed on Serbia from the outside, Jerusalem is apprehensive lest a perception of success on Kosovo bolster the resolve of the international community to try and impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this context, Israel’s recognition of Kosovo might undermine its long-held resistance to such a diplomatic initiative.

There are other types of anxieties as well, including the deeply phobic one that recognition of a predominantly Muslim republic would boost the spread of global Islam. As one right-wing member of Knesset argued in the Hebrew press following Kosovo’s declaration in 2008, “The flag of Kosovo is that of Islamic proliferation and a source of serious anxiety to Europe.”

Jerusalem’s non-recognition of Kosovo, in other words, has not been a function of a simple diplomatic lapse. It reflects instead a deliberate decision, one fueled by deep anxieties of various kinds. As it happens, these anxieties are entirely misplaced.

For one thing, as Jerusalem should know all too well, international diplomacy is primarily a function of high politics, not legal precedence. As the past few months alone have demonstrated, the case of Kosovo has had no bearing on the Palestinian bid for international recognition, not even in the wake of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law. Israel’s leading friends in the international community – which, incidentally, were also the first to recognize Kosovo – opposed the Palestinian bid at the United Nations Security Council.

Even Albania, whose commitment to Kosovo is rooted in a shared ethnic identity (Kosovo’s population is overwhelmingly ethnically Albanian ) and which lobbies on its behalf on the world stage, has had no qualms about coming out against the Palestinian bid. The Albanian prime minister publicly announced as much on a visit to Israel this past November. The irrelevance of the Kosovo case for the Palestinian UN bid has gone in the opposite direction as well. Some of the very powers that supported Palestine’s statehood bid remain adamantly opposed to Kosovo’s independence, not least Russia and China, the main opponents of Kosovo’s admission to the United Nations in the Security Council.

Incidentally, this alone should ring alarm bells in Jerusalem: Although no Western power is likely to bother to convey its “disgust” at the failure of these nations to recognize Kosovo, Jerusalem should be cognizant of the camp it has joined.

For the case of Kosovo is ultimately a moral and historical one, and Jerusalem’s failure on this score, therefore, is all the more regrettable. Arising out of one of the worst genocidal atrocities on the European continent since World War II, Kosovo’s demand for self-determination is one that Israel cannot afford to ignore. If anything, a country that never fails to invoke the Holocaust to justify its existence should have been at the forefront of the international campaign to recognize Kosovo’s independence. To mark Kosovo’s fourth anniversary, Israel has an opportunity to right a wrong and to recognize Kosovo. It is an act that Israel owes not only to Kosovo; it owes it also to the Jewish people.

(originally published in Haaretz)

Mailing ListContact UsSupport Mitvim