Sunday, April 17, 2016

Kosovo seeks closeness with Israel

Lital Shemesh,

image from

Last weekend a new president was inaugurated in Kosovo. Pristina, the capital city, was festively decorated in honor of the ceremony, in which the state's constitution was passed from outgoing President Atifete Jahjaga to incoming President Hashim Thaci. Thaci announced Kosovo's independence in 2008, when he was prime minister.

The ceremony, which I was lucky enough to attend, sitting in the second row just behind the European presidents -- was not the only place where I was showered with love and appreciation for being Israeli. This small, young country is full of respect for Israel and yearns to be close to it, despite the fact that Kosovo is a Muslim majority country. In meetings with Kosovar parliament members and industry leaders, everyone made it clear that they were waiting for the day that Israel would become a true friend and recognize their state. The diplomatic map positions Israel in a complex situation, in which it does not recognize Kosovo because of the country's unilateral declaration of independence, which could create a precedent for the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, outside the formal diplomatic arena, ties are being forged. The Center for Public Diplomacy in Israel ([see] a private, nongovernmental body) hosts delegations of businesspeople and students from Kosovo, and delegations from Israel go to Kosovo to learn about the region. This small country looks at Israel with envy and admiration for the way it has succeeded over only a few decades in turning a desert into a superpower. Senior officials in Kosovo confessed to me that they await the day that economy and agriculture experts from Israel will visit to share their knowledge.

Sixty countries still do not recognize Kosovo, and my hosts explained to me that the Kosovars have more in common with Israel than with the Palestinians.

"We too are struggling against and fighting global terrorism," the parliament's deputy speaker told me. "The Albanians saved more Jews during the Holocaust than anyone in the region, and we admire what you have done with your country."

The majority of Albanians are secular Muslims, and there are hardly any Muslim symbols in Kosovo. For example, there is a prohibition against building mosques on university campuses. And they try to maintain a complete separation between religion and state.

Some Kosovars will admit that they don't have much of a connection to their religion, saying that the only reason they are Muslims is because of the Ottoman Empire that once ruled in the region. The theme song for the presidential inauguration ceremony was John Lennon's "Imagine," and with that positive message of peace, we can only hope that we will manage to strengthen ties with those who want to be closer to us.

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