Israel-Kosovo relations marked by shared sympathies, hampered by identity politics

Despite Kosovo’s open admiration for Israel, Palestinian unilateralism and ties with Russia and Serbia make recognition of the Balkan state difficult for Jerusalem.

Enver Hoxhaj, former foreign minister of Kosovo (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Enver Hoxhaj, former foreign minister of Kosovo
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Israel can be a chilly place for the politician of a fledgling nation who seeks statehood recognition.
So it was that Enver Hoxhaj of Kosovo was greeted with handshakes in Israel this week, but held no official governmental meetings and flew home after his three days without the one thing he dreamed of – a public pledge of formal diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.
“I have a strong emotional relationship with this country,” the former foreign minister of Kosovo told The Jerusalem Post, during a visit to its newsroom this week.
The tall politician has a geopolitical outlook and an admiration for Jews and the Jewish state that the Foreign Ministry wishes every visiting diplomat possessed Hoxhaj has read and admires the work of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and respects the Jews’ right to self-determination in their homeland.
He said he can empathize with the Jewish experience in the Holocaust because of Kosovo’s own suffering at the hands of Serbia; Kosovo has accused Belgrade of carrying out genocide in the province during the war of 1988-1989.
“There are some similarities between Kosovo and Jews in terms of their suffering,” said Hoxhaj, who heads his parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Jews from the Diaspora, he noted, advocated for the NATO military intervention in 1999 that ended Kosovo’s war with Serbia and paved the way for its independence.
The bond he feels is so strong that he and his country are opposed to the Palestinians’ own unilateral quest for statehood. “We do not have diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority,” Hoxhaj stated, adding that Kosovo has not sought them.
He believes that such recognition of Palestinian statehood should be linked to a final-status agreement that ends the conflict. “We will not have diplomatic ties until you reach a solution with them, something that could be accepted by both sides,” Hoxhaj affirmed.
Hoxhaj’s opposition to Palestinian unilateralism, however, has not stopped him from urging Israel to follow in the path of the 108 other countries – including the US and 23 EU member states – which have recognized Kosovo’s decision to unilaterally declare itself an independent state in 2008.
It did so after Russia, which has veto power at the UN Security Council, opposed a UN-led process that would have granted Kosovo statehood – the International Court of Justice at The Hague later advised that Kosovo’s unilateral recognition is legal under international law.
“What we are asking for is to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, and for Israel to recognize Kosovo as an independent state – as other countries already have,” he stressed.
“To be frank, I do not have a rational explanation why they [Israel] are not doing this.”
Hoxhaj said he understood why the Jewish state might have hesitated to establish diplomatic ties with Kosovo seven years ago, but pointed out that the situation has changed since then. “We are fully integrated into the international community of free and democratic nations.”
Kosovo and Serbia are engaged in a process to become members of the EU, whose culmination would leave Serbia with no choice but to recognize Kosovan statehood, Hoxhaj said. He blamed Israel’s failure to grant Kosovo statehood recognition on its ties with Russia and Serbia, with which Israel has full diplomatic ties.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the issue with Kosovo is unilateralism.
“They declared independence unilaterally, without reaching an agreement with Serbia,” he stated. “We do have ties with them, but it is mostly cultural ties and some trade, but without any kind of official recognition.”
“It is related in a certain way to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
Israel's position on Kosovo, however, is broader than just that issue, Nahshon said. In general, “We do not want to encourage unilateral declarations of independence.”
Hoxhaj said he could not help but note that Serbia has been very supportive of Palestinian unilateralism, particularly at the UN – pointing to the fact that it voted in favor of the 2012 UN General Assembly resolution to recognize Palestinian as a non-member state.
There is a link between countries that support Kosovan unilateralism but balk at Palestinian unilateralism, such as the US and Great Britain. But in spite of those surface issues of alliances, Hoxhaj said, he did not see a connection between the Kosovan story and the Palestinian one.
“Both cases are very separate, both in terms of history and legal position,” he said.
Kosovan statehood is very much connected with the break-up of Yugoslavia, he said, and added that since then a number of states have been recognized on territory that once belonged to the Soviet bloc country, including Serbia and Macedonia.
Even when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia, it had its own distinct territory, government, justice system and flag, he noted.
Israel could benefit economically from ties with Kosovo, even though its economy – with a per capita GDP of $3,200 – is still developing, said Hoxhaj, emphasizing that Kosovo is rich in minerals and mining and has the fifth-largest reserves of lignite in the world. Moreover, it is located in the center of the Balkans and has one of the best climates in the region.
“We are one of the best examples from the former Yugoslavia of how a young nation can build a country from scratch,” Hoxhaj contended. “The main reason why we are not recognized by some countries is because Serbia is trying to block us internationally, and so far they have failed.
“I do not think that long term, they [Serbia] will be able to continue to block us,” he said, particularly noting efforts through the EU to end their conflict with Serbia. Once that happens, he said, Russia will also likely support Kosovo’s statehood drive.
“We will be forever an independent state. We are a geopolitical fact in Europe, and no one can turn the page back.”