Sep 4, 2020 - World

Serbia-Kosovo summit's surprise ending: diplomatic deals with Israel

Trump flanked by Vucic (L) and Hoti (R). Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

A White House summit between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo ended with a twist on Friday: Both countries announced diplomatic breakthroughs not with one another, but with Israel.

Driving the news: Serbia has agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem "by July," President Trump announced, while Kosovo and Israel will grant one another diplomatic recognition.

Behind the scenes: To finalize that agreement, Trump called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his meeting on Friday with Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, Netanyahu's office said in a statement.

  • The Israeli statement said that Kosovo would establish an embassy in Jerusalem, making it the first Muslim-majority country to do so.
  • Israel had never recognized Kosovo — which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 — in part because it did not want to legitimize the recognition of Palestine. It's unclear why Netanyahu's position has shifted.
  • Serbia — which has waged a campaign to pressure countries not to recognize Kosovo — clarified that it did not approve of Israeli recognition of Kosovo, one of several indications that much remained unresolved following the summit.

Between the lines: This unorthodox outcome of a summit between Balkan nations underlines the administration's push to help Israel build deeper diplomatic links around the world, and its desire to score wins where it can before November's election.

The other side: Serbia ruled out what would have been a landmark achievement — mutual recognition with Kosovo — ahead of the summit, and reiterated on Friday that such an agreement was out of the question.

  • The countries did sign what Trump called an "economic normalization" agreement in the Oval Office.
  • But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian media that he had signed a bilateral deal with the U.S., not with Kosovo.
  • Richard Grenell, Trump's envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, later clarified that Serbia and Kosovo had signed separate documents that were nearly identical, while Trump had signed a third document signaling his approval for the initiative.
  • Grenell traded barbs with reporters, whom he accused of failing to recognize the significance of the economic agreements.
  • National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien added that Serbia and Kosovo would freeze their de-recognition campaigns for a year, to provide "breathing room" for negotiations on that issue.

Background: Along with Grenell, O'Brien and Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner have been involved in the Serbia-Kosovo process, U.S. officials say.

  • The three met with Vucic in Washington in March on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference and raised at the time the issue of moving the Serbian Embassy to Jerusalem.
  • In his AIPAC speech, Vucic stopped short of announcing that step but said Serbia would open a commercial office in the city.

What to watch: The EU has long overseen negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, and the White House initiative has moved in parallel with that process.

  • Vucic and Hoti are scheduled to travel to Brussels on Monday for additional talks, per AP.

Worth noting: This White House summit was previously slated for June, but was delayed after Kosovo's president, Hashim Thaci, was charged with war crimes.

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