BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (Jan. 21)
The new Israeli Embassy in Belgrade is, for the time being, an eighth-floor suite at the end of a long corridor in the Intercontinental Hotel.
But Ambassador David Sasson, the first Israeli ambassador to Yugoslavia since Belgrade cut ties after the 1967 Six-Day War, is looking for a more permanent site.
His search for an embassy building has underscored the dramatic historical moment in which Yugoslavia — consisting today of the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro — and Israel re-established full formal links.
“This may be the only place in Europe where the owner who showed me a house seriously pointed out as one of its advantages that it had a bunker underneath it,” Sasson said in an interview.
Sasson took up his post in Belgrade in the midst of the mass street protests against President Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that have swept Belgrade and other Serbian cities on a daily basis for more than two months.
His arrival was given extensive publicity in the Yugoslav media, and Sasson said he has been warmly welcomed by government officials.
“I feel very challenged and very lucky to come now,” as the first Israeli ambassador in 30 years, he said.
“Yugoslavia is in a very interesting moment in its history,” he said. “Whatever will come, I want the people here to live in peace and to develop themselves after such years of war and bloodshed.”
Sasson, who served for six years as Israeli ambassador to Greece, arrived in Belgrade on Dec. 12, a year after the Dayton agreement put an end to four years of war in Bosnia and enabled the lifting of U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia.
Belgrade and most of Serbia were not the actual site of the bloody series of wars that marked the break-up of the former Yugoslavia over the past six years, but the conflict took a heavy economic, social and psychological toll.
“Their economy is on the floor,” Sasson said. “They need and want economic relations. The key point for Israelis to come to work here and invest is the privatization process and the implementation of laws necessary to protect foreign investment.”
He said he wanted to broaden contacts between Yugoslavia and Israel on all levels.
“Diplomatic relations are between nations, between peoples,” he said. “That’s what I want to do — to tighten the relations between the Yugoslav people and the Israeli people.”
Sasson said he would like to develop cultural contacts and educational exchanges, as well as joint economic projects.
“If the two people will feel closer to one another, I’ll have a good feeling that I fulfilled my mission,” he said.
No similar relationship with Croatia, another former Yugoslav republic, is expected anytime soon, at least as long as Croatian President Franjo Tudjman remains in office, Sasson said.
Tudjman included statements regarded as anti-Semitic in a book, and his nationalist policy is seen by many as an attempt to rehabilitate the Croatian fascist Ustashe regime that ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state during World War II.
“We recognize Croatia, but there will be no relations with Croatia until Tudjman takes back what he said about Jews and [stops] his anti-Semitic approach,” Sasson said. “If they maintain their policy, we won’t have relations. If they take it back, we will try to speak.”
Despite the previous lack of formal diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Israel, the two countries maintained commercial links over the years.
The Yugoslav airline JAT has direct flights to Tel Aviv twice a week, and since the end of the war in Bosnia, there has even been a boom in Israeli tourism to Yugoslavia, especially to coastal resorts in Montenegro.
“More than 5,000 Israeli tourists went to Montenegro last summer, and winter tourism is also on the rise,” Sasson said.
Yugoslavia’s Jews — about 3,000 people — are also closely connected with Israel. During the years of war and sanctions, many Yugoslav Jewish families sent their children to Israel for safety, and many Yugoslav Jews have relatives in Israel.
Sasson had his first formal meeting with Yugoslav Jewish representatives Jan. 16. He said he regarded the local Jewish community as family, and told them that his door was open to them at all times.
Belgrade Jews were clearly delighted with the opening of the embassy and arrival of the ambassador, but some cautioned not to expect great changes in their own situation.
“We shouldn’t rely on the embassy,” said one community member. “They are here for Israel, but we Jews have been here since before Israel existed and we were here during the time there were no diplomatic relations.”