Israel’s Newfound Interest in the Western Balkans is a Welcome Opening
Much has been made in recent years of the Western Balkans as an emerging site for geopolitical competition. The erosion of the traditional regional primacy of the European Union and the United States has certainly opened the door for new actors to advance their respective interests in this strategically volatile corner of Europe. The recent visit of Albania’s Prime Minister to Israel shows how these small regional states can capitalize on these developments to advance their own strategic interests and deepen their political influence within the broader Euro-Atlantic community.
Russia’s inroads among Serb nationalist elements in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro are well-established. So, too, China’s aggressive mega-projects in nearly every corner of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Turkey has long been accused of pursuing a so-called “neo-Ottoman” agenda towards Muslim-majority countries in the Western Balkans. In recent months, even Iran has made news for its hostile digital maneuvers in the region.
But it is not merely the heavy hitters of the international arena who have made overtures to local governments, and local leaders have been far from passive recipients of this attention. Consider Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s trip to Israel in October.
After Albania accused Iran of orchestrating a spate of cyberattacks against the country (presumably owing to Tirana’s hosting of the controversial People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran) and then cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran, Rama arrived in Israel for a three-day visit. There he spoke extensively with the country’s senior leadership, and celebrated Albania’s storied protection of its Jewish community during the Holocaust. Rama also met with prominent members of Israel’s business community, including Alexander Machkevitch, the billionaire chairman of the Eurasian Resources Group, one of the largest mining and raw materials concerns in the world. Machkevitch is understood to have organized Rama’s visit to the country.
For the leader of a small (and realistically quite marginal) polity like Albania, the visit could scarcely have gone better. Rama had visited the country for two days in 2015, but the timing of his return suggested Rama was punching well above his weight, especially when one considers the significance of Israel, a likewise small but hugely influential state in the broader Euro-Atlantic security order.
Other Western Balkan states should take note, especially those who find themselves in precarious political waters (above all Bosnia and Kosovo), with neighboring states undermining core aspects of their security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Such states must actively pursue beneficial relationships and allies wherever they can find them. And there are few states that have more experience than Israel with systematically rebuffing challenges to their sovereignty and building broad international support networks.
Israel is clearly interested in having a larger presence in the Western Balkans. On Oct. 7, the country will join the U.K., the EU, and the Western Balkan states in participating in the first summit of the European Political Community, a French-led initiative to provide an alternative to the obviously faltering EU enlargement project. Even if the Political Community turns out to be a largely ineffectual format – the probability of which is high – regional capitals should not squander the opportunity to deepen their links with Israel.
The benefits of stronger bilateral ties with Israel for Western Balkan capitals is legion, especially, as noted, for the more vulnerable among them. From security cooperation to intelligence sharing, to broader trade networks and increased tourism, all sides stand to benefit from reaching across the Mediterranean. Indeed, following Rama’s visit and the European Community gathering, there is already private chatter of an all Balkans-summit in Israel. Such an event would represent a historic evolution in the region’s international orientation, and it should be welcomed.
The historic dimension cannot be neglected. The Jewish community has been an integral part of Western Balkan life for centuries. In Sarajevo, arguably the historic center of traditional Jewish life in the region, priceless artifacts like the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah are guarded not only as testaments to the history of the Jewish people, but also to the history of the Jewish people in Bosnia, and thereby also the history of the Bosnian state itself. Investing in ties with Israel could thus also help revitalize the Jewish community in the Balkans, a process which could, in time, reverse decades of demographic destruction and decline.
Nor can one forget the role of the global Jewish diaspora in raising awareness of the horrors of the Bosnian Genocide during the 1990s, when much of the West was still turning a blind eye to the expulsions and exterminations. To this day, organizations like the World Jewish Congress continue to be at the forefront of combatting historical revisionism concerning the broader Yugoslav Wars.
Of course, there are issues to address. Israel has traditionally maintained its closest regional ties with Serbia. Belgrade presently maintains an obviously hostile posture towards nearly every other state in the Western Balkans, but above all towards Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro. Certainly it is a matter for Israeli leaders to decide how and with whom they want to nurture closer ties, but it would behoove leaders in those capitals — Pristina, Sarajevo, and Podgorica, respectively — to attempt to broaden Israel’s understanding of regional affairs. That way, incidents like Israel’s messy intervention in Bosnia’s election-reform debate could be avoided. (After Israel’s Embassy in Tirana came out in support of an illiberal election law proposal in Bosnia in August of this year, one backed exclusively by Croat nationalist hardliners, Sarajevo sent a formal demarche to the embassy, which also covers Bosnia, prompting the Israeli government to reprimand the country’s ambassador in Albania. It was an incident that could easily have been avoided had Israel better appreciated the complexities of local polities.)
Some may also complain that Israel’s entry into the Western Balkans is purely self-interested — that it is trying to check Iran’s influence and find partners for its own security priorities in a region in which the country has previously only had a peripheral presence. That may well be the case, but so what? The entire Western Balkans region – barring only perhaps Serbia – is at least formally committed to the Euro-Atlantic political and security order. As such, countering the influence of states like Iran, Russia, and China, among others, is already implicitly part of these countries’ foreign policy postures.
In short, any potential problems in the Israel-Western Balkans relationship are ones that are best addressed by advancing and deepening ties between the two. Rama’s visit opened the door; it is up to other regional leaders to follow.
IMAGE: In this handout provided by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO), Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, during a meeting on December 21, 2015 in Jerusalem, Israel. Rama returned to Israel in October 2022 and met with Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu is set to return to the premiership after Israeli elections on Nov. 1, 2022. (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)