Kosovo and the question of Palestine

No peace with partition. (Nidal El-Khairy)

Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence has produced a range of reactions among Israeli and Palestinian observers that reveal their anxieties about their respective situations.

An editorial in the Israeli daily Haaretz called on the Israeli government to immediately recognize Kosovo, arguing that “the struggle of the persecuted Kosovar people for independence is reminiscent of the struggles by other nations for the right of self-determination.” Of course Haaretz was not talking about the Palestinians, but about the “State of Israel, which was established in the wake of the Jewish people’s struggle for self-determination” (“Recognize Kosovo,” Haaretz, 18 February 2008).

By identifying Israel with the supposed underdog, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Haaretz implicitly recognizes that there are indeed some striking similarities though not ones it would acknowledge. Kosovo, like Israel, was illegally severed by force of arms from another country against the wishes of the majority population of the whole territory. Both entities came into being and can only survive with the sponsorship and support of the Great Powers of the day who sustain them in violation of international law because it suits their imperial interests. Furthermore, both entities are animated by a virulent ethno-nationalism that is fundamentally incompatible with the values of freedom, tolerance and democracy that they claim to have come into being to uphold. In this sense, Kosovo is the latest in a collection of Western-backed pseudo-states that also includes the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq.

Haaretz’s desire to recognize Kosovo flows not merely from selfless concern for the oppressed, but is also explicitly opportunistic. First, doing so would please Washington (Israel’s main sponsor), and second it provides a “unique opportunity” to “prove that the Jewish state is not an enemy of the Muslims” — though Haaretz was careful to note that Albanians in Kosovo are ‘good’ Muslims “who ha[ve] not identified with extremist Islamic tendencies and ha[ve] kept a distance from Israel’s opponents in the Arab world.”

A radically different Israeli view by Haaretz columnist Israel Harel echoes the position expressed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 1999 when NATO forces bombed Serbia and then occupied Kosovo under the pretext of protecting ethnic Albanians in the province from abuses and ethnic cleansing by Yugoslav authorities. (These reports were greatly exaggerated to justify the war. By contrast massive ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Serbs by Albanians since 1999 and NATO inaction to stop it is well-documented.)

For Harel, Israel should identify with Serbia. “Muslims of Kosovo constitute an absolute majority of the population,” Harel worries, “and the same is true for the Galilee Arabs,” his dismissive term for Palestinian citizens of Israel living in their native towns and villages in the north of the country. Lamenting Israel’s failure to “Judaize” the Galilee, he repeats right-wing claims that the Palestinians inside Israel are an ungrateful fifth column receiving too many resources from an over-generous and “impotent” Israeli state. Ignoring the decades of racial, legal and economic discrimination, land confiscation and forced displacement that Palestinian citizens of Israel have suffered and continue to endure, he charges that “Israeli governments have resigned themselves to the blatant, unconcealed separatist actions of the Galilee Arabs” (“Kosovo is already here,” Haaretz, 21 February 2008).

Harel cites as evidence of this “separatism” the claim that “Arab intellectuals and public officials have compiled documents known as ‘The Vision,’ in which they reject Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.” In fact, the various documents that Harel seems to be referring to have set forward explicitly democratic, inclusive constitutions for a unitary state in which all citizens have equal rights regardless of religion or ethnicity. These Palestinian “vision” documents are more than anything an appeal against the narrow ethno-nationalism and separatism of Zionism and in favor of universal values.

So far, the Israeli government has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and has indicated that it is unlikely to take a stand on the issue in the near future.

Kosovo also presents dilemmas from a Palestinian perspective. John Whitbeck, an international lawyer and former legal advisor to Palestinian negotiators, pointed out the obvious hypocrisy of the Western justifications for recognizing Kosovo: “The American and EU impatience to sever a portion of a UN member state (universally recognized, even by them, to constitute a portion of that state’s sovereign territory), ostensibly because 90 percent of those living in that portion of the state’s territory support separation, contrasts starkly with the unlimited patience of the US and the EU when it comes to ending the 40-year-long belligerent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” (“If Kosovo, Why not Palestine?” The Jordan Times, 20 February 2008).

Whitbeck advocates that “the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership, accepted as such by the ‘international community’ because it is perceived as serving Israeli and American interests,” seize the opportunity and declare independence for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza if “this leadership truly believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that a decent ‘two-state solution’ is still possible.” To give teeth to this initiative, Whitbeck suggests that Palestinian leaders make clear that if the world fails to recognize and support their state, they will dissolve the Palestinian Authority and seek a one-state solution in all of historic Palestine.

Yaser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Ramallah Palestinian Authority, made international headlines by suggesting that if negotiations with Israel continued to go nowhere, “we have another option,” which is to follow the example of Kosovo. “Kosovo is not better than Palestine,” he asserted.

Abbas and his other chief lieutenants, Ahmed Qureia and Saeb Erekat quickly jumped on Abed Rabbo, assuring the world that they would do no such thing — they would instead stick to the very “negotiations” that have been going on for fifteen years and that they acknowledge have made no progress. This makes perfect sense. As Whitbeck noted, these leaders are merely clients of the US and the EU. They will never bite the hand that feeds them.

What they recognize — and were forcefully reminding Abed Rabbo — is that the only principle that applies in such cases is that you do what your sponsors say and it is they, not you who decide the law. The Albanian leaders in Kosovo only acted when their US-EU sponsors told them to, and Abbas and his cronies will do the same.

So what if anything can observers of the Palestine conflict conclude from the events in Kosovo? Despite growing anger in Serbia, Western officials and prominent Balkans “experts” have blithely assured us that Serbs will soon get over the severing of their country, lured by the promise of being absorbed into the EU’s ever-expanding capitalist empire. Their optimism seems curious, given that nine years of NATO occupation in Kosovo and a decade-and-a-half of heavy NATO and EU presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina have not succeeded in producing long-term stability.

Imposed partitions in Palestine, Ireland, India, Cyprus and — it is to be feared — Iraq have one thing in common: they are always justified by their advocates with the claim that though perhaps less than ideal, they at least have the advantage of finality and clarity, and once the initial unpleasantness passes, everything will settle down into a new normality. As Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion notoriously said of the Palestinian refugees six decades ago, “the old will die and the young will forget.”

But in every case, such partitions have generated new conflict, injustice and ethnic cleansing and have reinforced nationalism and irredentism. What are the chances that Serbia will prove to be the exception?

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).