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An Israel in the Balkans?

May 31, 2007

By David Binder

Could Kosovo, as a newly independent state in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula, become a second Israel? A thorny question: Merely linking Kosovo and Israel in the same sentence could invite accusations of anti-Zionism on the one hand or anti Illyrianism on the other. Yet there are some historic parallels.

I do not propose to evaluate the parallels in terms of good or bad, but rather to explore the question of what happens when great powers try to resolve ethnic and territorial disputes by authorizing a new national state. A basic question poses itself: whether the creation of an Israel or a Kosovo is a factor fostering stability in its region, or fostering strife.

Since its birth Israel has fought five wars as well as engaging in numerous lesser combat actions. In modern times, Kosovo has been the scene of major battles at the end of World War II and again in 1999. The foundation of the State of Israel began with the partition 60 years ago of what had been the British Mandate of Palestine into separate homelands for Jews and for Palestinians.

The UN General Assembly approved the United Nations Partition Plan with a two-thirds majority. In May 1948, a provisional government announced the creation of the State of Israel. US President Harry Truman, who had previously been skeptical about the viability of an independent Jewish entity, swiftly declared de facto recognition of Israel (de jure recognition followed in 1949).

While American political support for Israel was strong and steady, substantial financial assistance was slower in coming. It started with a $100 million loan in 1949, but now amounts to nearly $3 billion in annual grants.

Kosovo became a ward of the United States in a similarly stumbling fashion. In late December 1992 – eight months into the Bosnian civil war – President George H.W. Bush sent a letter to President Slobodan Milosevic declaring: “in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.”

At that time there was no physical conflict whatsoever in Kosovo. So the Bush message struck the Serbian leadership like a bolt out of the blue. But the marker was set and the warning was repeated later by the Clinton Administration. The US finally implemented it in March 1999 with heavy air attacks.

Then, as soon as Serbian forces withdrew, President Clinton dumped Kosovo into the hands of the United Nations. Since it was taken over by the UN, Kosovo, the eternal economic basket case, has received more than $500 million from the United States and $3 billion from the European Union.

In the case of Israel, foreshadowing its creation was the Nazi genocide, which provided surviving European Jews and their supporters with a powerful argument for establishment of a Jewish homeland. In addition, from World War I on there was also a strongly articulated contention that nations had the right to self-determination. In the case of Jews that was the starting point of the Zionist cause in the late 19th century. In the argumentation of Albanians, Kosovo was the scene of genocidal actions by Serbs -although they do not dare to compare it to the fate of European Jews in World War II. (Their contentions were also weakened by the Albanians’ savage treatment of Kosovo Serbs).

Rather, the most vehement Albanian demands are framed in terms of the right of self-determination. For a long time they have been staunchly backed by the United States. As Condoleezza Rice stated on May 15: “it is important now to recognize that Kosovo will never again be part of Serbia.”

As it enters its seventh decade, Israel appears to be a fairly secure entity, despite being surrounded by hostile neighbors. The Zionist dream of Greater Israel (Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah) – including biting off big chunks of its neighbors – has been reduced to nibbles by militant settlers in West Bank lands. Yet Israel for all its extraordinary accomplishments remains a factor of great instability, not only in its immediate vicinity but well beyond. Now here is Kosovo on the eve of possible independence -no longer as a ward of the UN, but of the European Union. What are its prospects? Given the ambitions of the more militant elements among the Albanians — including fanatical elements in the diaspora – one wonders whether an independent state of Kosovo will contribute to stability in the region. (Stability, we must keep in mind, is the declared policy goal of the United States and of the European Union in the Balkans.)

As with the Zionists of yore harkening back to Biblical times, contemporary Albanians cultivate myths of Illyrian ancestry which would make them coeval with classical Greeks, and of an ancient “Dardania,” encompassing Kosovo, southern Serbia, western Macedonia and northern Albania. (Some chauvinistic elements toy with the idea of renaming the province “Dardania”.) Myths are harmless if they are confined to books and songs. For a dozen years Illyria Newspaper, published in the Bronx, carried a map of the “Greater Albania” encompassing pieces of Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro. But the Illyria-Dardania myths have also inspired forays by armed Albanian militants into places like western Macedonia and southern Serbia, as well as irredentist threats to southern Montenegro (“Malesia”) and northwestern Greece (to Albanians, “Chameria”).

Could a new State of Kosovo with its barely tested government and security forces, made up in large part by former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, cope with such elements? Could the European Union and the remains of KFOR still posted in the region contain Kosovo?

*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade‘s Politika on May 25, 2007.

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