Why Kosovo keeps extending blind support to Israel

And why its hopes for recognition from Israel keep getting crushed.

Kosovo refugees
Israeli PM Netanyahu greets Kosovar refugees at Ben-Gurion airport in May 1999; it was his first time to be seen in public since his humiliation at the polls [File: Havakuk Levison/Reuters]

“I love Israel. What a great country. Kosovo is a friend of Israel,” Kosovan President Hashim Thaci said shortly before declaring independence from Serbia in 2008. A decade later, Thaci promised to open an embassy in Jerusalem if the Israeli state recognises Kosovo.

For over a decade, Kosovo’s political elite has been courting Israel, hoping to get its political support. Despite Tel Aviv’s refusal to recognise Kosovan independence, Kosovan officials have persisted with the charm offensive.

In April this year, Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj welcomed six US investors to Pristina in 2019 in his office decorated with the flags of Kosovo, the United States, and Israel. He told his guests: “We are very proud of our cooperation with the US and the Jewish people, and Israel as a nation is a good model to follow.”

In July, during a trip to Israel, organised by the American Jewish Committee, Kosovan ambassador to the US, Vlora Citaku, said that she is fond of the Zionist state and that the Kosovan people “look up to Israel as an example of how a state can be built”. That the Israeli state was built on the continuing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and that she herself had once become a refugee as a result of a similar ethnic cleansing campaign did not appear to bother her.

Whether ordinary Kosovans love Israel is indeed debatable, but what is quite obvious is that their government has adopted a stubborn pro-Israeli stance, ignoring history, geopolitical realities and Israel’s own practical considerations. 

Staunchly pro-US

Kosovo has been struggling with gaining international recognition. Although over 90 percent of the country’s population is Albanian, Serbia still claims control over Kosovo, clinging onto what it claims is historically Serbian territory.

Central to Belgrade’s narrative on the matter is the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, in which the Ottomans defeated the Serbs and shortly thereafter conquered Serbian lands. This historical event became a cornerstone of the Serbian national ethos during nation-building efforts of the newly independent Serbian state in the 19th century.

Despite its demography having changed significantly in four centuries of Ottoman rule, Kosovo was mystified in Serbian nationalist imagery as “the heart of Serbia” or even the “Jerusalem of Serbia”.

Under Yugoslav and then Serbian rule, Kosovo’s Albanians suffered various forms of oppression, from colonisation practices in the early 20th century to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. During the 1999 war, some 90 percent of its population was displaced and thousands killed before NATO forces intervened and forced Serbian troops to withdraw.

As a result, Kosovars and their elite became staunchly pro-US. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, Kosovo’s population remains the most pro-American in the world, with almost 75 percent of Kosovars supporting the current US administration. Much of Kosovo’s public spaces are decorated with US flags and former President Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have statues in Pristina. 

Unsurprisingly, when it comes to foreign policy, as Citaku pointed out during her visit to Israel, “Kosovo always follows the American position.” This means Kosovo’s government is indisputably and unapologetically pro-Israel.

Palestinian-Kosovan differences

Kosovan politicians rarely speak of Palestine, and the Palestinians refuse to recognise Kosovo as a state, or form any type of diplomatic relations with it. There are a number of reasons for this paradoxical animosity between two nations which share a similar history of victimisation.

As a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia supported the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and broke all ties with Israel following the 1967 war. However, after Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the 1990s, the newly emerged countries rebranded themselves as Western liberal democracies and adopted pro-Israeli policies on their path towards European Union integration. Kosovo was no exception.

However, Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic followed a different path. While it was the first among ex-Yugoslavian states to open an embassy in Tel Aviv, it has also extended symbolic gestures towards Palestine.

Serbia was the only country in the region to vote in favour of Palestine’s admission to the United Nations as a non-member observer in 2012.

In response to the support Serbia gave Palestine on the international arena, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not only frequently voiced its gratitude, but also declared its opposition to Kosovo’s statehood. In January 2000, just months after his regime’s brutal campaign against the Kosovo Albanians, the PA invited Milosevic to join the celebrations of the Christian Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem.

More recently, in July 2019, Palestine’s ambassador to Serbia, Mohamed Nabhan, thanked Serbia for its long-standing support and reaffirmed that Palestine would oppose Kosovo’s admission to Interpol.

Palestine’s opposition to Kosovo’s statehood can also be attributed to Palestine’s own struggles with recognition. American, Israeli, and European arguments for not recognising Palestine are often based on the rejection of unilateral declaration of statehood, which, in the case of Kosovo, has not been a problem.

When Pristina declared its independence, senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said: “Kosovo is not better than us. We deserve independence even before Kosovo, and we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence.” 

The attitude of Kosovan authorities towards Palestine is undoubtedly affected by the Palestinian Authority’s dismissive approach to the question of Kosovan statehood as well as its strong relations with Serbia.

Israeli support for Serbia

Despite Kosovo’s pro-Israeli stance on the Palestinian issue, its relations with Israel face one major hurdle. Tel Aviv clearly sees the parallels between Kosovo and Palestine and fears that accepting its unilaterally-declared independence would aid Palestinian liberation efforts.

For the same reason, Israel also stood by Belgrade throughout the 1990s, as Yugoslav republics were also announcing their independence. While Western governments and Jewish organisations condemned the Serbian regime in the 1990s, Israel’s position was ambivalent at best and supportive at worst.

Moreover, there are some indications that Israel broke the arms embargo imposed by the West on Yugoslavia and sold weapons to Belgrade.

According to Israeli professor Yair Auron, there “is almost no doubt” that the shells that fell on the Markale market in August 1994, killing 68 and wounding 142, in what came to be known as the Sarajevo Massacre, were manufactured by Israel. In response to the incident, Israel issued a condemnation in which it failed to make a distinction between victims and perpetrators.

Presenting evidence that Israel armed Serb forces, Auron and Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack petitioned the state in 2016 to disclose the documents regarding the Israeli state’s involvement in the Bosnian genocide. Israel’s Supreme Court, however, claimed that a revelation would threaten Israel’s security and foreign relations.

When war broke out in Kosovo, Israel was hesitant to openly take a stance against Serbia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only condemned the atrocities committed by Serbian forces following criticism over his initial silence. 

His foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, condemned NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. He voiced his opposition to Albanian self-determination using Islamophobic rhetoric, warning “the free world” of dangers of “a large bloc of Islamic states” forming a “Greater Albania”.

After his defeat at the Israeli elections that year, Netanyahu was eager to publicise the fact that his government sent humanitarian aid and admitted about 200 refugees, who he used as a photo op.  

A year after Kosovo’s independence, Israel’s ambassador in Belgrade, Arthur Koll, affirmed that Israel will not recognise Kosovo, asking “the Serbian people and government” to “appreciate Israel’s position” as a sign of friendship. Following Israel’s 2014 aggression on Gaza, Serbia’s current president, Aleksandar Vucic, who served in the Milosevic regime, visited Israel and declared that Serbia is “very proud” of its friendship with Israel. 

Despite Israel’s firm support for Serbia – in rhetoric and in practice – Kosovo’s governing elite continues to eagerly support the Israeli state at any opportunity. A decade of blind adulation of Israel and its apartheid regime, however, has not really paid off politically.

At the same time, there are solid grounds for solidarity between Palestinians and Kosovo Albanians, who, with their unique experiences of oppression, share similar goals of national liberation and recognition. Perhaps soon, it will be the people, rather than their uncouth leadership, that will determine the future of Palestinian-Kosovan relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.