Kosovo raises some relevant issues

If the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations fail–at the time of writing they have been suspended by the Palestinian side in protest at Israel’s military response to rocket fire from Gaza–the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah ostensibly have a number of options. They can launch a third intifada in the West Bank. They can petition the international community to compel Israel to accept a single bi-national state solution. And they can declare independence.

The latter option was considered by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat during the more difficult stages of the Oslo peace process, and rejected. It has now been resurrected by PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo and others. Their inspiration is Kosovo. They advocate declaring independence within the June 4, 1967 borders as a means of galvanizing Arab and international support.

The differences between the Kosovo model and a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence are numerous and substantive. To take three of the most obvious: First, the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership does not control the Gaza Strip as well as much of the West Bank, whereas the Kosovars controlled the entirety of their territory with the help of an international force on the eve of independence. Second, the Israeli leadership welcomes a two-state solution based on the June 4, 1967 lines, whereas Serbia insists that Kosovo is part of that state. And third, the PLO already declared independence once, in 1988, and enjoys diplomatic representation throughout the nations of the world, yet the benefits of that act for the cause of a genuine Palestinian state have been limited.

Under these circumstances, a Palestinian move to (again) declare independence is liable to be perceived widely as desperate and pathetic rather than heroic and triumphant. Abed Rabbo himself notes that his embrace of the idea is largely an attempt to stimulate the current unproductive two-state negotiations and fend off pressures by some of his fellow Palestinians to demand a bi-national state solution. Nevertheless, the Kosovo declaration of independence raises some interesting and relevant issues for the Israeli-Palestinian case.

One is the fact that, from the Serbian standpoint, this is an imposed solution. As Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic warned on February 28 (IHT), "Recognizing the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia legitimizes the doctrine of imposing solutions for ethnic conflicts." Needless to say, it is Serbia’s horrific behavior toward the Kosovars over the years that led the West to impose this solution, while Israel has consistently avoided any similar situation in its conflict with the Palestinians. But there are Arabs, Israelis and others who insist that the only possible solution for our conflict is an imposed one, and they will draw encouragement from the Kosovo model.

A second relevant issue-area emerging from Kosovo is the role of the European Union. In effect, the EU is trying to embrace both Kosovo and Serbia and highlight the huge benefits for both of solving this conflict within a European community context that offers economic prosperity as well as a diminution of the significance of national borders and a downgrading of ethnic conflicts. Here, too, there are Arabs and Israelis who see the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a similar European context. They note that, despite its difficulties with Turkey, the EU is anxious to absorb Muslim Kosovo, thereby accelerating the precedent for membership by additional non-Christian countries.

Under present circumstances, an EU solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears far-fetched. But the notion of a regional solution has already been embraced by the Arab League in the form of the Arab peace initiative. Hopefully the League, where voices have recently been raised threatening cancellation of the initiative, will now draw encouragement from the Kosovo model and more actively pursue its plan.

Finally, the Kosovo drama is not over. The partition borders imposed on Serbia are untenable for that country largely because of the historic memory of the Battle of Kosovo, lost by the Serbs to the Ottomans in 1448. That battlefield is in a small sector of Kosovo that borders on Serbia and has a large Serbian population. While the Serbs and Kosovars refused to discuss partition of Kosovo to accommodate the Serbian national narrative prior to Kosovo’s independence, doing so now might be a way to end the standoff created by that act.

In other words, an imposed solution that leaves one of the parties as desperate as the Serbs may be only a prelude to additional negotiations and compromises. This is a message that resonates with Israelis and Palestinians.