Normalisation with Kosovo: Israel's expansion through the Balkan corridor

Normalisation with Kosovo: Israel's expansion through the Balkan corridor
Analysis: Israel had long rejected ties with Kosovo, but amid shifting diplomatic alliances mutual recognition could extend Tel Aviv's geopolitical reach.
7 min read
23 February, 2021
Kosovo is the first Muslim-majority state to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. [Getty]
In early February, Kosovo and Israel established formal diplomatic ties, with Pristina recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and vowing to move its embassy to the disputed city. 

The agreement, signed in a virtual ceremony, was described as "historic" by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs while Kosovo's top diplomat thanked Israel for becoming the 117th country to recognise its independence.

The recognition of Kosovo has been a long-time thorn in Israel's side since Pristina unilaterally parted from Serbia and officially declared independence on 17 February 2008. 

In part, Tel Aviv had spurned Western trends of recognition for fear that it could set a precedent for legitimising Palestine's bid for statehood. Indeed, Palestinian officials have long viewed Kosovo's unilateral independence as a model to be emulated. 

Serbia and Israel have traditionally maintained strong bilateral ties, working together in various fields from foreign policy to defence and the economy. As such, Belgrade expressed dismay at Israel's support for Kosovo's independence, which Serbia has refused to recognise, warning it could hurt future ties.  

Despite the essential differences between Kosovo and Palestine, Tel Aviv had not up until this point risked any diplomatic moves which could have provided impetus for Palestinian self-determination. So, what has changed - and why now? 

Israel had long spurned Western trends of recognising Kosovo for fear that it could set a precedent for legitimising Palestine's bid for statehood

Trump and Israel

Efforts by former US President Donald Trump to achieve an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo helped fast-track Israel and Kosovo's bilateral agreement. The main objective of the pact, which took place on 4 September 2020, was rapprochement between Belgrade and Pristina, utilising US economic aid and development plans as an incentive for both sides. 

However, at the same time, Trump also pushed his own agenda, promoting US and Israeli interests. Among the clauses of the agreement, Serbia and Kosovo both agreed to move their embassies to Jerusalem and designate Israel's top non-state threat, Hezbollah, as a terrorist organisation. 

Read more: Don't look to Washington for peace in

Timing has also been critical for Israel, with the Kosovo agreement signed on the back of Tel Aviv's diplomatic victory of establishing ties with Arab states in the context of the Abraham Accords. Tel Aviv perceived these developments as an indicator that the Palestinian cause had gradually lost momentum and that the recognition of Kosovo would not work in favour of Palestine under any circumstances.

In short, Israel calculated that recognising Kosovo's independence would be inconsequential compared to the other ground-breaking diplomatic shifts in the Middle East during the last year of Trump's presidential term.

Kosovan-Serbian reconciliation and the secondary - but essential – diplomatic gift to Israel, can be seen as Trump's grandiose final acts before leaving the White House. While the current political status quo – both in the US and Kosovo - is diametrically different now, the direction of travel will remain the same. 

US President Joe Biden will likely keep a friendly stance towards Kosovo given his special relationship with the country. Even though Biden has promised to engage with the Palestinians and seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is not expected to challenge the planned establishment of the Kosovan embassy in Jerusalem.  

Israel calculated that recognising Kosovo's independence would be inconsequential compared to other ground-breaking diplomatic shifts in the Middle East under Trump's presidency

Kosovo is also in a position of political reshuffling. While the September deal was approved by the Kosovan Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, the 14 February 2021 parliamentary elections led to a decisive victory for Hoti's fierce opponent, Albin Kurti, a leftist politician who briefly served as the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the past. His electoral campaign was predominantly based upon his anti-Serbian and anti-corruption rhetoric.

Back in September, Kurti bitterly criticised the Trump-backed agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. However, he welcomed the Israeli-Kosovan diplomatic breakthrough in early February. In this sense, no changes are likely regarding the Israeli-Kosovan deal, Hoti's last significant foreign policy step prior to the recent elections. 

The Serbian factor

Serbia views Kosovo, a Muslim-majority ethnic Albanian territory, as an essential part of its country and it holds a unique significance for Serbian identity. Home to some of the holiest shrines in Serbian Orthodox Christianity, it has often been described by Serbs as "their Jerusalem". 

Tel Aviv's decision to recognise Kosovo's independence more than a decade after its initial unilateral declaration has therefore certainly disappointed Belgrade. Nikola Selakovic, the Serbian foreign minister, stated a day after the official establishment of diplomatic ties that "he is not happy" with the development. Serbian sources, meanwhile, have indicated that plans to move the Serbian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will be put on hold for the time being.

Read more: How US blackmail pushed Sudan to normalise ties with Israel

However, the Israeli-Kosovan embrace could present other developments which could be favourable for Serbian foreign policy, when examined in strictly realist terms. While Kosovo has always been tied to the US, the fact that it is a Muslim-majority country has also attracted the support of several major players in the Middle East. The establishment of a Kosovan embassy in Jerusalem could fray diplomatic ties with other Muslim-majority states and former friends of Pristina, starting with Turkey and extending to other countries. 

Quid pro quo

The Kosovan announcement regarding moving its embassy to Jerusalem has been warmly welcomed by Israel. Even though several countries have considered a similar policy, only the US and Guatemala have actually done so, as of now. Pristina's decision has been of particular significance, considering that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country.  

The dual recognition – of Kosovan independence and Jerusalem as the Israeli capital - has certainly worked in a quid pro quo logic. For Pristina it is clear that setting up their embassy in Jerusalem, as a move of good will, will consolidate US and Israeli support. Since its establishment Kosovo has been functioning under US patronage, so it is logical for each Kosovan administration to align with key US foreign policy objectives. Simultaneously, the more countries recognising Kosovo as an independent state, the better for the country's political goals both domestically and abroad.

But for Israel the goals achieved by this move could be more strategic. Without undermining the political significance of the first Muslim-majority country potentially moving its embassy to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv also has wider goals in the Balkans.

Israel's logic can be interpreted as a strategy of mutual containment among different regional antagonists

Israel's 'divide and rule' strategy

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taking on less diplomatic significance in recent years, Israel has sought to continue to expand its geopolitical and economic influence abroad. The Eastern Mediterranean corridor could be considered a passage for Israeli influence in the Balkans, and consequently to Europe. 

Read more: Why Israel and Turkey could reset fraught

Tel Aviv has been cementing relations with Cyprus and Greece in the fields of defence and energy as the interests of all three parties in the region have aligned. Yet this embrace with Athens and Nicosia has not prevented the Israeli administration from considering restoring and strengthening ties with Turkey. The concurrent friendship with Kosovo and Serbia fits into the same context.  

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise the independence of Kosovo and the first to fiercely condemn the Kosovan decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Turkey is a vocal backer of the Palestinians and Pristina's plans have irked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Israel's logic can be interpreted as a strategy of mutual containment among different regional antagonists. While Tel Aviv is growing its geopolitical reach in the Balkans, by establishing strong ties or channels of cooperation with each and every state separately, a sense of tension is always purposefully maintained in the background, through targeted Israeli diplomatic moves.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris