Just six days after US President Trump proudly announced another diplomatic breakthrough with Serbia and Kosovo, saying both will be opening embassies in Jerusalem, there came a spoiler: Serbia is apparently backing out of the deal, because Israel is to recognize the breakaway republic of Kosovo in reciprocity.
The Times of Israel reported yesterday:
Speaking to The Times of Israel, the Serbian source, who said he has met [Serbian President Aleksander] Vučić several times in recent days, including after the Washington ceremony, stressed that some sort of “diplomatic relationship” between Jerusalem and Pristina [Serbia] would be acceptable, but not a formal recognition of the Republic of Kosovo as a sovereign state. “I can tell you that Serbia will not move its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognizes Kosovo as an independent country,” the source said. “Moreover, this move by Israel would harm the otherwise intimate relationship between Israel and Serbia and it will never be the same. It’s that simple. Folks in Israel should understand this.” Asked if Serbia had not tacitly agreed to Kosovo and Israel establishing relations, the source stressed that the two sides signed separate documents. “The document Vučić signed doesn’t say anything about Israel recognizing Kosovo.”
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.
The difference between the documents signed by Serbia and Kosovo are in the last point in the agreement document (which fills less than two A4 pages), and it relates to Israel. On the Serbian version, it says:
“Serbia (Belgrade) agrees to open a commercial office, and a ministry of state offices, in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020 and move its embassy to Jerusalem by July 1st 2021”.
On the Kosovo version it says:
“Kosovo [Pristina] and Israel agree to mutually recognize each other”.
And what was Trump signing? Pressed by journalists to reveal this point, Trump’s Serbia-Kosovo envoy Rick Grenell said at a press conference:
“He signed a… how would you describe it? a… basically a letter acknowledging that they are going to work together and do this… agreement.”
Grenell tried to downplay the discrepancy between the Serbian and Kosovar documents, saying that they are “99.9%” identical. But the documents contain only 16 points. To be precise, the documents are 6.25% different. And that difference is not a minor difference – it relates to diplomatic relations with a foreign country, and even implies explicit breach of international law and UNSC resolutions in the Serbian case (although the embassy move to Jerusalem was not written in in the Kosovo case, it was immediately confirmed by both Israel and Kosovo as meaning that).
This is outrageous. It’s not as if both parties could not have gotten the same text mentioning what was agreed with the other party. The point right before the last makes such a distinctive dual description, to wit: “Kosovo [Pristina] will agree to implement a one-year moratorium seeking new membership into International Organizations”, and “Serbia [Belgrade] will agree to a one-year moratorium of its de-recognition campaign”.
One is thus led to believe, that there was an underhanded move by the US – that the US knew that there would be a bone of contention concerning that last point on Israel and thus it blindsided both parties to it, so the signing would not be delayed and the mess could be worked out later.
This basically suggests that this was primarily a photo-op for Donald Trump, once again. The document is very vague, and even contains silly mistakes at the very top, where point 1 repeats itself in point 2. It’s clearly an amateurish document prepared in haste. And the devil is in the details. The last point is not a mere 0.1% discrepancy – it appears to be the point of it all – Israel. We must remember that for Trump’s main donor, Sheldon Adelson, Israel is the issue.
The agreement itself is not only vague – it is about the US chalking up for itself various earlier agreements that the EU has led in nearly a decade of negotiations. As journalist Jack Butcher wrote in his “open letter to the American people“
“The Trump administration decided to get directly involved in negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia just last year, when Grenell was appointed as the U.S. president’s special envoy. Until then, this administration, just like its predecessors, had happily backed negotiations that had been taking place under the mediation of the EU for much of the past decade.
At the signing ceremony, Trump immediately mentioned the recent UAE-Israel deal:
We’ve also made additional progress on reaching peace in the Middle East… The agreement we’ve made with UAE has been incredible, what it represented, what it meant, and we have other countries in the Middle East coming very much to us and saying, like, ‘when do we go?’, ‘when can we sign?’, and I think we’re going to have great peace in the Middle East, and nobody’s been able to say that for… a long time.
It’s obvious that Trump is going off-script here, in his clumsy, clunky, kitschy way. Notice as well how he says “the agreement we’ve made with the UAE” – not the “agreement between Israel and the UAE”. Israel is just part of the “we”. The United States of Israel.
Trump further boasted of the connection in the aftermath, tweeting:
Another great day for peace with Middle East – Muslim-majority Kosovo and Israel have agreed to normalize ties and establish diplomatic relations. Well-done! More Islamic and Arab nations will follow soon!
As Butcher notes, suggesting that Kosovo is an “Islamic and Arab nation” is false:
Unfortunately, a mere scratch beneath the surface reveals that all is not quite what was advertised — not least because Kosovo is neither an Arab nation nor, as set out clearly in its constitution, Islamic, which seems to be what Trump was implying.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also pushed the same line:
Kosovo will be the first country with a Muslim majority to open an embassy in Jerusalem. As I’ve said in recent days – the circle of peace and recognition of Israel is expanding and more countries are expected to join.
Both Trump and Netanyahu need this politically. They want to appear as savvy global deal-makers who can achieve what others only talked about. But in their haste to get the photo-ops, they cut corners. It is ironic that the point on Israel became such a bone of contention. It’s not because of Israel as such – it’s because it meant that Israel would recognize Kosovo, and and although the Serbian Prime Minister Vučić was not signing on to that, it is indirectly implied that he was, because it was the same ceremony – thus he got immediate backlash from the Serbian nationalists who see Kosovo as an inseparable part of Serbia. This is a can of worms.
It bears mentioning that there was even some doubt as to whether Vučić was actually aware of the final pont in the document. When Trump said that Serbia has agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem in July, Vučić’s reaction, which has widely circulated on social media, appears to be puzzled and alarmed: he looks through the document at that point, as if seeking more pages, turns back towards an aide, then face-palms himself, quickly turning that movement into a smoothing of his hair.
Vučić vehemently denied that he was unaware of the content of the document. He stressed that he reviewed every letter of it (a 3-minute read). I doubt that Vučić was unaware of it. Was he just trying to catch attention? We may never know.
Once again it’s all about Israel. But with all the brouhaha, let us just reflect a moment, that none of this drama is actually because of Palestinians. It’s not because Palestine is a contentious issue for Serbia or Kosovo. They have no problem with moving their embassies to Jerusalem and giving their signature to Israel’s unilateral annexation. That’s not their problem. The problem is now a rivalry between Serbia and Kosovo, and the attempt to throw Israel into the equation has apparently exacerbated it. For Trump and Netanyahu, throwing Israel into the equation appears to be the point of it all.
H/t Annar Follesø, Zlatko Jovanović