Serbia and Kosovo have announced that they have normalised economic ties as part of US-brokered discussions that also include Belgrade moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and Pristina recognising Israel.
After two days of meetings with Trump administration officials, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti agreed on Friday to cooperate on a range of economic fronts to attract investment and create jobs.
The White House announcement provided US President Donald Trump with a diplomatic win ahead of the November presidential election and furthers his administration's push to improve Israel's international standing.
“Truly, it is historic,” Trump said, standing alongside the two leaders in the Oval Office. “I look forward to going to both countries in the not too distant future.”
Vucic told reporters there were still many differences between Serbia and the breakaway province, but said Friday's agreement marked a huge step forward.
US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who participated in the meetings, said the agreement on expanding economic ties could pave the way for political solutions in the future.
Netanyahu welcomes decision
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Serbia will become the first European country to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem, following Washington's ground-breaking recognition of contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital almost three years ago.
"I thank my friend the president of Serbia... for the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to transfer his embassy there," Netanyahu said, saying the controversial move would happen by July 2021.
"I would like also to thank my friend President Trump for contributing to this achievement," he said in a statement.
Palestine: Serbia moving embassy to Jerusalem illegal
The announcement by Serbia to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is contrary to international law and UN resolutions, Palestine's ambassador to Belgrade Mohammed Nabhan said on Friday.
"That is, as far as it happens, contrary to international law and to
UN resolutions relating to the Palestinian question and to Jerusalem as an occupied city and that it harms the rights of the Palestinian People to exercise its state in all the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 including Jerusalem," said a statement from the embassy.
Nabhan said the decision would strain relations between the two countries.
"There is no doubt that this would harm the traditional friendship between Palestine and Serbia and would not serve this development," said Nabhan.
Palestinians reacted with cynicism about the Kosovo and Serbia announcements, suggesting they were more to bolster Trump's reelection prospects in two months while victimising them.
"Palestine has become a victim of the electoral ambitions of President Trump, whose team would take any action, no matter how destructive for peace... to achieve his re-election" in November, tweeted Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
"This, just like the UAE-Israel agreement, isn't about Middle East Peace," he added.
"What else will Trump procure for Israel before November?" said senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi.
But in Washington Trump senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, a key player in Middle East negotiations, said the moves advance peace and make Americans safer.
"Today's breakthrough really is historic," Kushner said at the White House.
"This is just another chapter that this administration has been able to write towards making the world a safer and more peaceful place," he said.
Gesture of solidarity to Israel
Serbia’s decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a nod to both Israel and the United States. The Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017 and moved the US embassy there in May 2018.
The administration has encouraged other countries to do the same but has been widely criticised by the Palestinians and many in Europe because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.
Kosovo, a predominantly Muslim country, has never before recognised Israel nor has Israel recognised Kosovo.
The gestures to Israel are part of the Trump administration’s push to improve the Jewish state’s international standing, which has included forceful denunciations of criticism of Israel at the United Nations and in other international venues.
Most recently, the administration brokered a deal for Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalise relations. That was followed by the first commercial flight between Israel and the UAE, with neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to allow such flights to pass through their airspace.
Additional Arab states, including Sudan, Bahrain and Oman, have been identified as countries that may soon also normalise relations with Israel.
Archrivals on the mend
Kosovo’s Parliament declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day air strike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Most Western nations have recognised Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China have not.
The ongoing deadlock and Serbia's unwillingness to recognise Kosovo have kept tensions simmering and prevented full stabilisation of the Balkan region after the bloody wars in the 1990s.
“We cannot accept any document which includes Kosovo’s independence, and that’s full stop," Vucic told reporters after meetings on Thursday at the White House.
Serbia and Kosovo have already OK’d air, rail and transit agreements, including one that would clear the way for the first flight between Pristina and Belgrade in 21 years. The new agreement comprises many more areas of economic cooperation.
Business leaders in both nations have been frustrated and have been talking among themselves about ways to foster investment outside of the ongoing political talks brokered by the European Union.
On Monday, Vucic and Hoti are scheduled to go to Brussels to hold talks under the auspices of the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and special envoy for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue Miroslav Lajcak.
The EU has mediated the talks between the two former wartime foes for more than a decade, and the parallel US effort, although focused on economic development, has not been fully embraced by some EU officials.
The White House summit was originally scheduled for June, but it was cancelled after Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who was to lead the Kosovo delegation, was indicted for war crimes by an international court.
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