Israel will not recognize Kosovo's independence at this time, and is watching developments in Brussels and elsewhere before it makes a final decision on the issue, officials in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, a day after Kosovo's parliament declared independence from Serbia.
"We haven't decided when we're going to decide, and instead will monitor events and consider the issue," said an Israeli official who deals with the Balkans.
Many nations are taking a similar stance, especially those with their own large ethnic minorities. Should all of Israel's "influential friends" such as the US, UK, France and Germany decide to back Kosovo, Israel would most likely follow suit, the official said.
As of Monday night, the US, UK and Germany had recognized the new state, and Britain had called on the international community to recognize Kosovo.
The consensus in Jerusalem is that the Serbs will eventually give up on demanding that Kosovo reverse its decision, but will not say so publicly. "Kosovo is already a country," the official said.
While it is waiting, however, Jerusalem is being pressured by both sides to take a public stand. The Kosovar parliament sent letters on Sunday to most countries in the world asking for recognition. By press time, the Post could not find anyone in the Foreign Ministry who would say whether a letter from Kosovo had been received.
Meanwhile, Serbia's Ambassador to Israel Miodrag Isakov has told the Post he has been assured by high-ranking Israeli officials that Jerusalem will not recognize Kosovo's unilateral declaration, and that this is unlikely to change in the near future.
Isakov held a meeting at the Foreign Ministry on Monday where he presented Belgrade's position on the events of the past two days, calling Kosovo's declaration of independence "annulled and a totally illegitimate act."
He said he felt an "understanding" by Foreign Ministry officials of Serbia's position, "which is grounded in the principles of international law."
Isakov added that the Israelis told him the issue should be resolved in negotiations between the two parties to the conflict because it was "in Israel's interest for the international order be preserved and to be protected from a domino effect in which Israel itself could be affected."
Israeli officials point out that the issue has not been brought to a vote in the UN General Assembly, and is unlikely to be, as Russia has said it will use its veto power in the Security Council to prevent this. If the issue did get to the General Assembly, "Israel will have to decide either way," the official said, but for now, Jerusalem will postpone a decision for as long as possible.
Furthermore, officials said Israel needed time to consider the possible ramifications the "very complex" situation in Kosovo could have on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the status of Israeli Arabs. Jerusalem is concerned that should Israel recognize Kosovo's independence outside of a UN framework it could set a precedent for a similar move by the Palestinians should final-status drag on without tangible results, or should a government not committed to a negotiated solution take power in Israel. Furthermore, Israel's Arab minority might use such a precedent to secede in areas heavily populated by Arabs, such as the Western Galilee.
"[Israel's position] encourages us as Israel has renewed its commitment to the good relations between the two states, and that is in our favor," Isakov said.
Israel-Serbian relations have been steadily growing as economic cooperation deepens and more businesspeople from both nations increase their investments.
The ambassador added that the Foreign Ministry officials told him they would not bring the discussion to the cabinet level. "It will stay that way as long as possible or until Israel's decision clashes with its own interests," Isakov said, adding that he would not go into details of the steps Serbia would take should Jerusalem recognize Kosovo.
"You never know how these things end, so you should stick to international rules of the inviolability of a sovereign nation's borders," Isakov said.
Israel also has good relations with the Kosovars, with Jerusalem sending massive humanitarian aide to the besieged Muslims during and after the 1998-1999 war with Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Jewish groups worldwide are also involved in aide to Kosovo's Muslim majority, and even helped to rebuild mosques damaged during the fighting.
Jerusalem finds itself, like many in the international community, in the uncomfortable position of having to weigh its relationship with a friendly nation, Serbia, against a people striving for self-determination in Kosovo. Israel has an interest in helping to establish a moderate, secular Muslim state friendly to Jerusalem and Washington in the heart of southeast Europe.
Serbia, backed by Moscow, argues that Kosovo has no right to declare independence, whereas Kosovo's backers in the West, including the US, say Serbia has not been the de facto sovereign in Kosovo for more than nine years, and that since the region is policed by NATO peacekeepers and administered by the UN, Kosovo's independence is the last act in the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. Serbia argues that since the sides are still engaged in negotiations, UN resolutions pertaining to the issue rule out a Kosovar secession from Serbia without agreement from Belgrade.
Isakov believes that the crisis will worsen in the coming days and weeks, and will present a problem not only to Europe, but globally, as ethnic minorities worldwide take heart from the Kosovar precedent.
Kosovo's backers say the declaration of independence will not set a precedent, and is an isolated issue because, since the end of the 1999 war, the area has been in a political power vacuum and administered by the UN.
Isakov argued that the issue would not resolve itself any time soon and would likely develop into another "frozen conflict," of which there were many in the Balkan and Mediterranean region.
Israeli officials don't perceive the issue to be "our problem" and prefer to remain as impartial and uninvolved as possible. The laconic statement released Sunday and reiterated to the Post Monday is an indication that Israel does not want to be seen as judging either side in the Kosovo-Serbia crisis, just as Jerusalem does not appreciate outside interference in its own affairs. The assessment in Jerusalem is that Israel does not need to be seen to decide either way, even though not declaring its support for Kosovo's declaration of unilateral independence is regarded by some as a stance in itself.