Serbs, Kosovars, Israelis, Palestinians

Politics and policy.
April 24 1999 3:30 AM

Serbs, Kosovars, Israelis, Palestinians

The bewildering politics of Kosovo in Israel.

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Ask two Israelis a question on any subject, and you'll hear six opinions (nine during election season) and probably start a brawl. And even on Kosovo, a topic you wouldn't think Israelis could disagree about, they are managing to squabble, revealing a peculiar ambivalence about this black-and-white issue.

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American Jews have uniformly greeted the Serbian brutality in Kosovo with outrage. They identified with the displaced Kosovars, comparing them to the Jews of the Holocaust. They commended NATO for bombing quickly rather than ignoring the brutality as Allied leaders did during the Holocaust. One Jewish organization ran newspaper ads depicting trainloads of bedraggled Kosovars, an echo of Nazi concentration camp trains. American Jews poured cash into half a dozen relief funds established by national Jewish groups, and at least two Jewish agencies sent relief teams to the Balkans.

Israeli Jews' reaction to Kosovo has been equally intense but much more complicated. Like American Jews, most Israeli Jews view Kosovo as a reminder of the Holocaust and feel a special obligation to aid Kosovars. Israel has done more for Kosovar relief than any other non-NATO country (as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never hesitates to note). Israel sent a field hospital and 80 doctors to Macedonia and welcomed 112 Kosovar refugees, offering them permanent residence. Israelis also mobbed a huge Kosovo benefit concert.

But beneath Israelis' sympathy for Kosovars lurk more perplexing reactions that illuminate the anxieties of a state where a beleaguered ethnic minority seeks independence, the byzantine nature of Israeli electoral politics, and the enduring weight of the Holocaust in Israel--but not the weight you'd expect.

Israeli doubts about Kosovo begin with Israeli doubts about Palestinians. Palestinian newspapers and leaders have compared the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo to the Palestinian "nakba" of 1948, when thousands of Palestinians fled Israel and ended up in permanent refugee camps. (This analogy has been endorsed by the likes of the Economist, which called the flight of the Palestinians an unpunished ethnic cleansing.) Palestinians also claim that the West's intervention to preserve Kosovar autonomy confirms their right to independence. "We will ask the international community to intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and to expel the settlers from it," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Authority's Cabinet secretary, citing the Kosovo bombing as exemplar.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Most Israelis are merely irritated with this Palestinian claim, viewing it as an unseemly attempt to exploit the Kosovo crisis and as a faulty analogy. (An Arab invasion of Israel in 1948 prompted the Palestinian flight, not an Israeli invasion of Arab territory.) But Israel's far right has taken the Palestinian claim seriously. The far right views Kosovo not as tragedy but as threat, "a dangerous precedent." Some right-wing Knesset members have called for an end to the airstrikes: If the West intervenes on behalf of an independence-seeking ethnic minority in Kosovo, one asked, "couldn't it happen here, too, in a different variation today or tomorrow?"

The Serbs only exacerbate Palestinian righteousness and Israeli right-wing paranoia by calling Kosovo Serbia's "Jerusalem." If Kosovo is Jerusalem, that means that either a) Israel's hold on Jerusalem is unjustified, as Palestinians argue; or b) Serbia's hold on Kosovo is justified, as a few fringe-right Israelis are now hinting.

Kosovo ambivalence has also become a pawn in next month's Israeli election. The Israeli left has blasted Netanyahu for his languorous response to the humanitarian crisis: He took several days to decide that Israel would help refugees and several more days to announce support for bombing.

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B ut Netanyahu and his allies, particularly hawkish Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, are using Kosovo more cleverly. Early in the bombing, Sharon warned that an independent Kosovo could become the heart of a "Greater Albania" that would be a staging ground for Muslim terrorism. Netanyahu quickly disavowed Sharon's remarks, but Sharon had scored points with the far right, where anti-Muslim sentiment abounds. Israeli media have been full of unsubstantiated reports that the Kosovo Liberation Army is funded by Iran, Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, and Hezbollah. Calls to Israel's far-right talk radio station have demanded that Israel send its Muslim Kosovar refugees to Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Sharon has especially exploited Kosovo to court Israel's 1 million new Russian immigrants, whose votes are expected to decide the election's outcome. Sharon has visited Russia three times in the past few months, including once in the midst of the Kosovo bombing. Sharon eagerly sucked up to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, implicitly condemning the NATO bombing during his most recent trip. Russian Israelis are not especially pro-Serb, but they definitely want close ties with Russia. So, Sharon is using Kosovo to butter up Russia. That, in turn, could swing Russian voters.