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We were discussing politics one evening - how the government was faring, how to react to international pressure, whether it would be necessary to give up more territory. There were two or three businessmen, a writer, a senior government employee, a university professor. Not surprisingly in such debates the talk became heated, and voices were raised.
"We are less than 10 percent in the West Bank," one of them said. "There is no way we will be allowed to keep it."
The author became indignant. "We must never give it up. It is the cradle of our nation. It is our history. Without it we are nothing. Can a man be asked to give up his heart?"
This was not a social gathering in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. We were seated in a cafe in Belgrade, and the territory in question was Kosovo, which every Serb regards as the true heartland of the Serb nation.
One of the participants turned to me. "Please understand. We are talking about our equivalent of Jerusalem. It is our Judea, our Samaria."
There exists great empathy for Israel in Serbia. In contrast to the Croats and the Slovenes, the Serbs suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis. They, more than most nations in Europe, understand and sympathize with the plight of the Jews during the Second World War.
Typically, the father of the president of Serbia is president of the Serbian-Jewish Association. Moreover, they compare Israel's emotional attachment to Jerusalem to their own feelings for Kosovo. "Our" Palestinians are "their" Albanians.
Kosovo will be one of the hottest international issues in 2006. Although still under Serbian sovereignty, it has been under UN jurisdiction since the end of the fighting between Serbs and Albanians in 1999. The Albanians, the overwhelming majority in Kosovo, demand full independence. They threaten renewed violence if their demand is not granted. The Serbs living in Kosovo feel increasingly endangered. The Serb press writes of the danger of an Albanian "intifada." There is talk of organizing a mass Serbian colonization of Kosovo in order to prevent a complete Albanian takeover.
YET DESPITE this brave talk, a palpable feeling of gloom and pessimism pervades the Serbian capital. When I first visited Belgrade in the early Nineties, any thought of giving up on Kosovo was unthinkable; talk of doing so would have been treason. Since then a great deal has happened - the Serb policy of "transfer" of Albanian inhabitants, NATO intervention culminating in the bombing of Belgrade and other Serb cities, Albanian violence against the Serbs in Kosovo leading to their mass evacuation and finally, UN jurisdiction over the contested territory.
The bombing, which caused widespread destruction and the death of hundreds of innocent Serbs, created a tremendous feeling of bitterness and anger which can still be felt today.
Now, with only 100,000 Serbs left in a population of two million in Kosovo, there is a growing feeling in Belgrade that Serbia will not be able to lord it over a hostile population indefinitely, and that the international community will not allow it to do so. In the coming year a UN commission will probably decide on independence for Kosovo, and the Serbs will then have to decide whether to defy the international community and risk complete isolation or agree to swallow the bitter pill.
Already today Serbia is being punished by the international community because of the perception that the Serbian government is not doing enough to find Serb fugitives suspected of war crimes and hand them over to the Hague International Court.
The World Bank is not allowing the Serb government to provide guarantees to would-be foreign investors - with the result that only a minimal foreign investment is flowing into Serbia. The European Union, which has begun preliminary talks with Serbia for Serbian membership in the EU, is expected to stall in the talks until the fugitives are brought to justice and the Kosovo dispute is settled.
Defying the world on Kosovo could have dire consequences for Serbia. "We can't do it," I was told by one of the participants in the Belgrade cafe gathering. "In this era of globalization, isolation would cripple us. It would prevent us living normal lives. It would stifle economic development of our country. We will have no choice. We will have to give up Kosovo."
It all sounded depressingly familiar. If Kosovo is Serbia's Judea and Samaria, as one of them put it, Judea and Samaria could eventually become our Kosovo, with all the international consequences. The Serbs had thought, 10 years ago, that they could ignore international pressure. Will we still think we can ignore it, 10 years hence?
We too have begun to realize that we cannot lord it over a hostile population indefinitely. We too have begun to realize that in an era of globalization we cannot defy the entire world.
Israel, of course, is not Serbia. The differences between the two cases are huge. So are the similarities. And it pays to learn the lessons of others in similar circumstances.
The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.
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