In his September 21 speech to the United Nations, President Obama announced that he would veto U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, because its independence was not a result of a negotiated settlement with Israel. He said that “peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our…votes have been tallied….That’s the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement led to an independent state. And that is and will be the path to a Palestinian state — negotiations between the parties.”
But President Obama neglected to mention a recent prominent example of unilateral independence, the State of Kosovo, which was recognized by the United States three years ago–even though its statehood did not come about through a negotiated settlement with Serbia. If an independent state of Palestine should only be recognized with Israel’s approval, then why did the U.S. recognize the independence of Kosovo in 2008, over the objections of Serbia? Why recognize Kosovo but not Palestine?
Serbs view Kosovo as the cradle of their national identity, where the Ottoman Empire defeated them in 1389. Kosovo maintained a Serb majority for centuries, but in the late 1800s it became a seat of Albanians’ national awakening, and eventually gained an ethnic Albanian majority. It became part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia after World War I, and (after the Axis occupation in World War II), the Yugoslav Communist government made Kosovo into a province within the republic of Serbia, recognizing the rights of its Kosovar Albanian majority. In 1989, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic vastly reduced Kosovo’s autonomy, citing threats to the Serb minority, as the opening move in his nationalist crusade for a Greater Serbia.
Like Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat first declared Palestinian sovereignty in 1988, Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova first declared Kosovo independent in 1990. No foreign powers recognized Kosovo at that time, but 127 UN member states have since recognized the State of Palestine.
Civil war erupted between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998, and more than 2,000 people died in the fighting. KLA fighters targeted ethnic Serb civilians in the province, as well as moderate Kosovar Albanians, and Serbian forces targeted Albanian civilians. In February 1999, President Clinton led NATO in a bombing campaign against Serbia, triggering Milosevic’s plan for the “ethnic cleansing” (or forced removal) of Kosovo’s Albanian majority, which began after the bombs started falling.
When the KLA came to power with backing from NATO troops in June 1999, it in turn ethnically cleansed thousands of Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), Turks and Jews from its territory, based on the accusation that these groups had sided with Serbian forces. These minority groups had been living in Kosovo for centuries, unlike the Israeli settlers who are mostly recent transplants imported to Palestinian soil. When Serbia had settled some Serb war refugees in Kosovo from other ex-Yugoslav republics during the 1990s, Washington condemned the program as an attempt to shift the demographics of the province. The few Serbs living in Kosovo since 1999 have been subject to periodic pogroms, and a Serb enclave in the north has periodically threatened to rejoin Serbia, generating instability in the new state.
Whereas the prevailing mythology in the United States is that Clinton bombed former Yugoslavia to stop ethnic cleansing, people in the Balkans understand that U.S. forces intervened against Serb ethnic cleansers, but intervened on the side of Croat and Albanian ethnic cleansers. After the fighting was over, NATO rubberstamped the results on the ground of these forced removals, and deemed the silence of the graveyard a “lasting peace.”
Kosovo’s parliament redeclared independence in 2008, in a move that was boycotted by Kosovo Serb delegates. So far, 83 UN member states (including the U.S.) have recognized Kosovo—44 fewer than the total members states that have recognized Palestine. Serbia asked the International Court of Justice to rule on the secession, and last year the Court issued an advisory opinion that unilateral declarations of independence are not prohibited under international law.
Serbia has a stronger legal case than Israel to object to unilateral independence, and not only because of the Kosovo’s expulsion of most Serbs. Kosovo was not only recognized as a part of Yugoslavia before the 1990s, not as a Yugoslav republic of its own, but as a province within the republic of Serbia. On the other hand, the West Bank and Gaza (not to mention Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem) have never been recognized as a part of Israel. In addition, after coming to power, KLA fighters blatantly endangered the security of neighboring states, by seeking to militarily “liberate” ethnic Albanians in western Macedonia and Serbia’s Presevo Valley.
The difference is that Kosovo is under occupation by a foreign military alliance that backs the self-determination of its ethnic Albanian majority. The West Bank and East Jerusalem are under the occupation of a foreign military force that seeks to prevent the self-determination of its majority Palestinian population, and seeks to settle its own population in their place.
Serbia and Israel have remarkably similar messages toward the West. They contend that their military occupations have been justified to prevent a repeat of the genocide directed against them in World War II. (The Palestinians had nothing to do with this genocide, though Croatia and Albania were allied with the Axis Powers.) Serbia and Israel present themselves as bulwarks defending Western civilization against Islamist extremism, even though both the Palestinian and Kosovar national movements began with secular ethnic-based identities, and include members of Christian minorities. Serbia and Israel have also used ancient religious justifications (such as shrines and archeological sites) for their military presence in lands where they do not have a demographic majority.
The difference is that the Israeli lobby in Washington is far stronger than the Serbian lobby. Milosevic’s massive ethnic cleansings of Kosovar Albanians (as well as Croats and Bosnians) were more recent and televised than Israel’s forced removal of Palestinians from their ancestral lands, in what they term the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948.
The KLA has long been implicated in heroin trafficking to raise funds for the cause and cash for personal enrichment. Former KLA commanders, including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, have even been accused of trafficking in human organs. Kosovo is also a notorious center of sex trafficking in the Balkans, especially as Western troops have been stationed there. Whatever the veracity of any of these particular charges, none of them have prevented U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence.
The difference is that the Palestinian national movement has not been implicated in such international crime syndicates. We can be sure that if any Palestinian leaders were accused of just one of these crimes, the Israeli lobby would trumpet the charge loudly as an argument against a Palestinian state, and the White House would echo the claim.
Palestine and Israel have come down on different sides on Kosovo independence. Senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Abed Rabbo, cited Kosovo’s example for unilateral independence when he said, “Kosovo is not better than us. We are worthy of independence before them and we ask for backing from the United States and European Union.” Meanwhile, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman categorically refused to recognize Kosovo, claiming that its independence is a “sensitive issue” that should be part of "a really comprehensive and peaceful solution" established through negotiations. So both the Palestinians and Israelis are consistent in their consideration of Kosovo’s example. The party that is not consistent is the United States, which with one hand recognizes a new state, and with the other hand blocks another new state.
The difference may be that, since the days of Woodrow Wilson, Washington tends to support the unilateral self-determination of peoples only if they are white Europeans. More to the point, Israel serves U.S. foreign policy interests in the Middle East, but Orthodox Christian Serbia has historically been more aligned with Russia.
The United Nations has not recognized Kosovo because it would set a negative precedent for unilateral secession around the world. Many states in the Arab League and European Union, on the other hand, view Kosovo as a positive precedent for Palestine. Some governments may oppose sovereignty for both Kosovo and Palestine. But the U.S. is virtually alone in its backing for the State of Kosovo, while at the same time hypocritically blocking a State of Palestine.
Americans should start asking President Obama: if Kosovo has a right to exist, why doesn’t Palestine also have a right to exist?
Dr. Zoltán Grossman is a professor of geography and world indigenous peoples studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. His website is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org He is a civilian Member of the Board of G.I. Voice, an antiwar veterans group that runs the Coffee Strong resource center for soldiers outside Fort Lewis:http://www.coffeestrong.org His list of U.S. military interventions since 1890 is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html