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Kosovo nationhood: Problem for Israel?

A mosque looms in the background on one of the main shopping streets in southern Mitrovica, part of Kosovo, which is seeking independence from Serbia. (Dinah Spritzer)

A mosque looms in the background on one of the main shopping streets in southern Mitrovica, part of Kosovo, which is seeking independence from Serbia. (Dinah Spritzer)

PRISTINA, Kosovo (JTA) – Hashim Thaci may be the tough-talking prime minister of Kosovo and ex-commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, but he gushes over Israel like a kid recalling a trip to Disney World.

“I love Israel. What a great country. Kosovo is a friend of Israel,” the grinning Thaci, 39, tells JTA in a Pristina hotel crowned by a miniature statue of liberty. “I met so many great leaders when I was there – Netanyahu, Sharon — I really admire them,” Thaci continued, referring to former Israeli prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.

With the province of Kosovo preparing to declare independence from Serbia following years of failed negotiations and the expiration of a United Nations deadline on Dec. 10 for an agreement with the Serbs, Thaci is poised to become the prime minister of Europe’s newest country.

Kosovo is home to some 2.2 million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians with Muslim roots.

Despite Kosovo having the most pro-American vibe in Europe and a profoundly secular stance on Islam, as well as Thaci’s supportive line on Israel, some Israeli analysts are warning that recognizing its independence from Serbia is not in Israel’s interest.

These analysts argue that recognition sets a precedent for foreign interference in bilateral disputes that could affect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is also general concern among Israeli officials over encouraging Muslim separatist movements and that Kosovo’s independence will help create a new Muslim corridor within Europe where radical Islam could take root.

Kosovo experts say this fear is misplaced based on an overgeneralization of Muslims that does not recognize that Kosovo Muslims are secular, pro-Western and, in many cases, fond of Jews and Israel.

“You’ll find far more radical Islamists in Brooklyn than you will in the Balkans,” said James Lyon, the Belgrade-based special Balkans adviser for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on conflict prevention.

Kosovars tend to place much more emphasis on their ethnic Albanian identity than on their Muslim identity, which developed under centuries of Ottoman rule.

“The Albanians, including the Albanians of Kosovo, do whatever they can to steer clear of any identification with Islam,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “The idea of a Muslim corridor is absurd.”

Kosovo is intensely pro-America – U.S. sponsorship of NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999 is widely viewed in Kosovo as having saved the province from Serbian aggression – and Thaci is expected to coordinate recognition of his new country with the United States and the European Union. Serbia and its key ally, Russia, vehemently oppose Kosovo independence.

Kosovo, the southernmost province of Serbia, has been run as a United Nations protectorate since 1999, when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic waged a brutal war to purge Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian population and quash a bid for independence by Kosovo rebels.

While Serbia cannot punish every country that recognizes Kosovo, Israel may be treading carefully. Israel has significant economic investments in Serbia and is wary of the geopolitical implications of recognizing a breakaway province.

“It is our policy that disputes should be resolved between the parties and not by outside solutions,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel told JTA.

Israel is concerned that if it recognizes Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, it will be more difficult for the Jewish state to oppose unilateral Palestinian independence in the West Bank, should that moment ever arrive.

“I do think Israel – as Cyprus, and I would guess also Sri Lanka, as any other country that has to deal with ethnic conflict and secessionist claims — should be somewhat worried by an international acceptance of an independent Kosovo,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, the Neubauer research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“It will basically mean that in the eyes of the international community, partition is the only way to go,” she said.

Israel also has strong trade ties to Serbia. Two major Israeli firms, the Africa-Israel Corp. and the Tidhar Group, recently made one of the top foreign investments in Serbia, opening the $173 million Airport City business park in Belgrade.

Nevertheless, many Kosovars see their plight, and not Serbia’s, as parallel to Israel, pointing to the state’s status as an independent country emerging in the wake of a devastating genocide.

In any case, strong U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence makes it unlikely Israel would withhold recognition of Kosovo for very long.

“We won’t be the first to recognize Kosovo, but we won’t be the last,” a source within Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity.

Most worrisome for Israel is the fear that Islamists will establish a foothold in the country while it is still struggling with its identity fresh after independence.

Since Kosovo became semi-autonomous in 1999, Arab charities have swept into the province, building mosques and providing financial incentives for Kosovars, among the poorest people in Europe, to become more religiously devout.

In neighboring Bosnia, Islamists have made noticeable inroads, and following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Bosnia reportedly granted citizenship to hundreds of people with links to terrorist groups.

Serb leaders, too, have promoted the specter of radical Islam gaining traction in Kosovo. Both because of Israel’s fears and Serbia’s close historical relationship with Israel – Serbia opposed the Nazis during World War II – that message has found a receptive audience in Israel.

Rafi Israeli, an expert on Islamic history at the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem, said that based on how radical Islam penetrates societies, Kosovo’s secularism is no guarantee against Muslims in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia forming a radical bloc.

But Kosovars say there is little basis for concern.

For one thing, they point out, Islam has been successful in Bosnia because Bosnians have united around religion. In Kosovo, by contrast, nationalism is what has united ethnic Albanians.

Moreover, they say, Kosovo’s Interior Ministry is intent on keeping radical Islam out of this wine-producing, disco-loving nation.

“We already have set up an intelligence agency within the police to monitor these Arab charity groups,” said Burim Rammadani, the ministry’s political adviser, suggesting that the agency will take on a more powerful role after independence. “We don’t want radical Islam here.”

There have been a few accounts of jihadists setting up shop in Kosovo, but veils and uncut beards remain rare.

In Kosovo, where Thaci’s campaign adviser was an Israeli and where a recent candidate for Parliament used a picture of himself embracing U.S. President George W. Bush on his promotional poster, fears about radical Islam seem far-fetched.

Asked if Kosovo was pro-Israel, Vlora Citaku, a spokeswoman for Thaci, laughed.

“There is only one answer,” she said. “We are pro-U.S.”

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