“Virtual diplomacy” just took on a whole new meaning.
On Feb. 1, for the first time in history, two countries have established official ties remotely — in this case, during a 28-minute ceremony broadcast via Zoom from two capital cities nearly 1,100 miles apart.
It was never meant to happen like this. The predominantly Jewish State of Israel and the Muslim-majority Republic of Kosovo — following several years of quiet negotiations and long delays — had intended to inaugurate their relationship last month at an actual event in Jerusalem, complete with speeches, actual handshakes and toasts over glasses of Albanian raki and kosher wine.
But then coronavirus got in the way. With COVID-19 infections surging, Israel had no choice but to declare a third national lockdown and close the country’s sole international airport to all traffic for an extended period, making the planned in-person celebration impossible.
Not wishing to delay any further, the two governments decided to go virtual.
“Today, we are making history,” declared Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Jerusalem. “The establishment of relations between Israel and Kosovo is an important and moving historical step that reflects the many changes the region has experienced in recent months.”
“Today, we write a golden page in the history of our people. We have become part of history,” said Ashkenazi’s counterpart, Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj Stublla of Kosovo, speaking from Prishtinë. “This ceremony will be a testimony for decades to come.”
Before a streamed Facebook Live audience in the tens of thousands, the foreign ministers signed three cooperation agreements. The first — a joint communique written in Hebrew, English, Albanian and Serbian — established actual relations, while the second was a memorandum of understanding on diplomatic consultations between the two foreign ministries. The third document outlined an agreement concerning Mashav, Israel’s international development agency.
Assistants then scanned each document and emailed them to their counterparts for final signatures. The process continued until all documents had been signed in both capitals. Finally, Ashkenazi unveiled a bronze plaque that will mark the entrance to the Embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem when it officially opens for business — likely by Passover in late March.
Israel becomes 117th nation to recognize Kosovo
Kosovo is hardly the first country to establish diplomatic relations during the COVID-19 era. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have already done so, under the umbrella of the Abraham Accords promoted by the Trump administration and by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
Last December, when the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan opened ties with Israel, the signing ceremony took place at the New Delhi residence of Israel’s ambassador to India, Ron Malka — who conducted an official exchange-of-notes ceremony with his colleague, Maj. Gen. Vetsop Namgyel, Bhutan’s ambassador to India.
Even without its highly unusual online aspect, the Feb. 1 event would have been historic anyway.
For starters, Kosovo —a breakaway republic of Serbia that unilaterally declared independence in 2008 — has been fighting for global respect for the past 12 years. Until last Monday, 116 nations had extended Kosovo official recognition, the last two being Bangladesh in February 2017, and Barbados exactly a year later. Israel becomes the 117th, though large countries such as China, Indonesia, Russia, Spain and Ukraine are conspicuously absent from that list.
More importantly, Kosovo will become only the third country (after the United States and Guatemala) to locate its embassy in Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem — and the first Muslim-majority nation to do so. All other countries with a physical diplomatic presence in Israel have their embassies in Tel Aviv.
“We are eternally grateful to the United States. This would not have been possible without the blessing and strong commitment of the United States, and former President Donald Trump,” said Haradinaj. She also praised Richard Grenell — former special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations under Trump — as well as incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken.
In fact, it was in the far-reaching economic normalization agreement reached on Sept. 4, 2020, at a White House summit of Kosovar and Serbian leaders meeting in Trump’s presence, that Serbia agreed to move its existing embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem no later than July 2021. Besides Kosovo and Serbia, the only countries that have announced plans to put embassies in Jerusalem are Honduras and Malawi.
“Israel has followed Kosovo’s establishment since its establishment, and during the difficult days of your war, Israel treated Kosovar refugees and the wounded, and more than 100 Kosovar children were brought to Israel to study. Israel wants a stable Balkans, and we know the price of war,” said Ashkenazi, formerly chief of staff of the Israeli Army.
“The agreement signed in Washington between Serbia and Kosovo encourages us,” he added. “Israel considers Serbia a close and significant partner. I want to express special appreciation to President [Aleksandar] Vučić for his leadership.”
Objections raised in Belgrade, Brussels and Ankara
Ashkenazi also extended a warm welcome to Ines Demiri, who will become Kosovo’s first ambassador to Israel.
Demiri, 41, has spent the last four years at Kosovo’s general consulate in New York. Hailing from the town of Prizren — where the government plans to build a synagogue and small museum — she’s the daughter of Votem Demiri, president of Kosovo’s 52-member Jewish community.
“My heart is overflowing, as I finally saw the results of our many years of hard work,” Demiri wrote on Facebook following the ceremony. “We have been waiting for this moment for such a long time. I am deeply honored and looking forward to this new challenge.”
U.S. flags were on prominent display in both Jerusalem and Prishtinë, given Washington’s strong involvement in the talks that led to this day.
“When our partners are united, the United States is stronger,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “Deeper international ties help further peace and stability in the Balkans and Middle East.”
Yet not everyone in the neighborhood is rushing to toast Kosovo’s new friendship with Israel.
The European Union has already warned Prishtinë that opening an embassy in Jerusalem would threaten the country’s efforts to join the 27-member bloc, with spokesman Peter Stano in Brussels reminding the Kosovars that he expects them to abide by the EU’s “commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through dialogue.”
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately attacked Kosovo’s plans for a Jerusalem embassy, calling it a violation of international law because the final status of the city — claimed by both Israelis and the Palestinians as their capital — has yet to be determined.
Israel’s Kosovo overtures are also rattling the Serbs, despite all the words of goodwill.
“We have invested serious efforts in our relations with Israel in recent years, and we are not happy with this decision,” Serbian foreign minister Nikola Selaković told public broadcaster RTS in Belgrade. He warned that the Netanyahu government’s decision to recognize Kosovo “will undoubtedly influence relations between Serbia and Israel.”