From Kosovo to Jerusalem (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Forty-one years ago, East and West Jerusalem were united. Just over four months ago, Serbia was divided - or rather severed - from its prized province when Kosovo, the erstwhile axis mundi of the Serbian nation, declared its independence. Like Serbia, Israel is fighting to retain control over its sacred center. But in clinging so strongly to its greatest treasure, does Israel stand to lose more than it gains? Serbia's experience has too many parallels to let the lesson be lost on Israel. Many worry that Kosovo's unilateral precedent may inspire other aspiring states, such as the Palestinians. But in our local drama, Kosovo is also akin to a city - Jerusalem - with Israel in the role of the Serbs. The first similarity lies in the passionate emotional resonance that both Kosovo and Jerusalem hold for Serbia and Israel, respectively. Westerners observe, but rarely seem to really appreciate, the depth of Serbian emotion toward Kosovo. Their attachment to it is eerily similar to Jews' feelings about Jerusalem. In fact, in December 2007, in a speech at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic declared, "We think of it [Kosovo] as the cradle of our civilization: Kosovo is like our Jerusalem." To this day, Serbians mourn the loss of Kosovo - for the first time - in the Battle of Kosovo on June 15, 1389, when Serbian noblemen and leaders were routed, and the Turks began their takeover of Serbia. The Serb hero of that battle, later caught and beheaded by the Turks, has a Christ-like image of iconic martyrdom in Serbia's epic poems, known as the "Kosovo Cycle," that are full of romantic, mystical longing; they are recited to schoolchildren and deeply embedded in the national folklore. Jews, too, commemorate a series of defining tragedies: among them, the destruction of the First and the Second Temples, and the subsequent Jewish Exile over 1,200 years before the Battle of Kosovo. Jews recite the Book of Lamentations, teach our children "By the Rivers of Babylon," based on Psalm 137, and sing the haunting melody of "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav." But the parallels extend beyond historical, collective longing well into today's current reality. While no two situations are identical, for both Serbia and Israel, emotions bear heavily on current political realities - with arguably detrimental results. Like Israel, the modern Balkan countries were relics of the Ottoman Empire. Albania gained sovereignty in 1912, but the Great Powers who approved its independence determined that the province of Kosovo, although about one-half Albanian, would come under Serbian sovereignty. Yugoslavia, too (established in 1945), tried to cement the Serb presence in Kosovo through settlement activity. But the Albanian majority grew throughout the century and by the 1990s, the Serbian minority there had dwindled to 15 percent, according to the International Crisis Group. Kosovo received partial autonomy in the 1970s. But in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic sought to roll back this autonomy in a fervor of nationalism that was to last for a decade. The move touched off a cycle of fighting between Serbian forces and Kosovo Albanians. The violence, killings and expulsion of civilians became so bad that NATO ultimately initiated a bombing campaign in 1999 to drive Milosevic's Serbian forces out of Kosovo. The province became a U.N. protectorate, with an interim U.N. administration governing until its final status could be determined. Kosovo became divided, although not in half: Serbia has no real control over most of Kosovo. Serbs now make up just 5 percent of Kosovo's population, according to World Bank figures (Serbians often estimate 10 percent), almost completely concentrated in about fifteen per cent of Kosovo's territory: the land north of the Ibar river that remains nearly 99 percent Serbian. The government of Serbia unofficially provides services there, although it is hardly able to protect its kin from aggression by Kosovar Albanians outside that region. Jerusalem too is effectively divided. True, Israel has been more successful in reducing the Palestinian numbers in the parts of the city that Israel annexed after the Six-Day War, from 90 percent in 1972, to just under 60 percent now, according to the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, but Palestinians are still the majority in East Jerusalem. There are roughly 250,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, constituting some 35 percent of the city's population. Since Arabs have a higher birthrate, and since in 2007 the city suffered from negative migration, the proportion of Jews in Jerusalem is expected to decline further. The Jerusalem municipality neglects basic municipal services in the Eastern part, such as garbage collection and Palestinians receive 10 percent of the municipal budget. Some 20,000 refugees in East Jerusalem receive services from U.N. organizations. Palestinians in East Jerusalem may feel they belong to a different nation and it seems that Israel itself treats them as a separate entity, Israel's declarations regarding the "unity" of the city, notwithstanding. Recognizing these realities, both Serbia and Israel have had leaders in the recent past who were prepared to compromise. Serbia expected, at the very least, to retain some part of northern Kosovo and they might have been able to do so. In 2002, then-Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic made a number of statements indicating willingness to negotiate the possibility of partition for Kosovo. His pro-European coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), would likely have followed his lead, hoping that a solution on Kosovo would facilitate EU accession. But in March 2003, Djindjic was assassinated; his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, insisted on full Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo. The Serbian Radical Party, an unsavory nationalist gang, ratcheted up its populist, nationalist rhetoric and gained electoral momentum; so the moderate parties, including the conciliatory Democratic Party (whose leader is the current President), learned to wax hawkish, too. Kostunica's party, a hybrid of nationalists and democrats (not unlike Israel's Kadima as led by Prime Minster Ehud Olmert), tacked sharply to the nationalist side. Thus, political forces staked out positions that were out of touch with reality, for political gain. Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.