Understanding the Israeli-Balkans Strategic Partnership

As U.S. president-elect Donald Trump begins to formulate his Middle East foreign policy, he will be wise to assess what areas of the world have become strategically important to America’s ally, Israel. One of those areas is the Balkans region.

Israel has strong diplomatic and security cooperation with Balkan states, sharing mutual threats such as the rise of radical Islam. The Balkans route is a path for arms, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. It has also been traveled by tens of thousands of Middle East migrants hoping for a better life in Europe. Some migrants have been radicalized fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and in other regional conflicts. They are considered security threats as they infiltrate Western societies.

In the Balkans, there is growing appreciation for Israel, along with special understanding of Israel’s security concerns in a turbulent Middle East, surrounded by certain state and non-state actors that do not want the Jewish nation to exist.

Israel values countries that share its political concerns especially those who are members of the EU and NATO. Israeli officials view these two organizations as strategically important for Middle East stability. Israel supports the participation of close allies in the Balkans that have joined the EU, and are joining NATO as member states.

Albania is a NATO member. Montenegro hopes to join in 2017, recently entering into another phase in accession talks with NATO. Montenegro hosted a large-scale military drill to test NATO’s abilities to act effectively in future natural disasters. Israel sent rescue and recovery teams to the country, along with military and diplomatic attaches, and was able to participate in the defense exercises. Israel’s recent reconciliation agreement with Turkey signaled a willingness for Israeli participation, after six years of being blocked by Turkish officials.

Israel is involved in strategic partnerships in the Balkans despite the fact that some Balkan states are aligned with countries like Iran, which Israeli officials clearly oppose. Israel’s Foreign Ministry is aware of both Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s influence in the region. Therefore, Israel collaborates with Balkan countries at the highest levels of security and intelligence.

One country that is becoming a more serious player in the Middle East and wants a closer relationship with the Balkans is Russia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has had cold relations with the outgoing Obama Administration, did not like U.S. attempts to strengthen NATO’s defense capabilities in Europe. Putin sees NATO as a threat to Russia’s military aspirations in the former Soviet Union, in the Middle East, and in parts of Europe. NATO forces could act to constrain Russian aggression in the future. Reportedly, Russia may have tried to interfere this month in Montenegro’s parliamentary elections, hoping to stop the nation’s increased involvement in NATO.  

The Balkans are becoming a growing focus for both the West and Russia for strengthening political, diplomatic, and security objectives. As Russia has filled the Obama leadership vacuum in the Middle East, Putin in his reach for further hegemonic interests, views the Balkans as a region strategically important to him. Historically, Balkan states were once closer to the former Soviet Union.

As one diplomat described to this writer, the moment you have big players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran playing in this field, there is good reason for the Russians to be interested, as well. From Russia’s viewpoint, just like the Turks, it is in their scope of potential regional dominance.

The biggest country of the Balkans today is Serbia, which in the past had close relations with Russia. Until now, some of the high officials in Serbia are more aligned with Russia’s strategic interests in the region than the EU. Historically, it was NATO that bombed Serbia, not Russia. The Serbs remember it very well. In Serbia, the prime minister is pro-Western, and the president is pro-Russian. This contributes to political uncertainty in the region.

Still a divergent issue in the Balkans is Kosovo’s strive for independence. There is strong U.S. support for it. Russia is strongly against it. And, certain UN countries are stopping Kosovo from achieving independence.

Israel’s position on Kosovo is based on how it views its own conflict with the Palestinians. Israel does not recognize Kosovo as being an independent nation. The Israeli government believes Kosovo should come to peaceful terms with Serbia, in direct negotiations, similar to what Israel expects with the Palestinians. Until then, Israel’s view is that there should be no unilateral steps taken by Kosovo. Israel does encourage trade, culture, and academic relations with Kosovo… all but recognition.

Energy needs are vital strategic issue for Russia, the U.S., and Israel in the Balkans. The region is a path for energy pipelines. Israel places great importance on negotiations with its Balkan allies concerning the future global energy map. Since Israel found gas and oil in the Mediterranean, there have been ongoing discussions about partnerships. This may lead to enhanced energy cooperation between Israeli and Balkan leaders.

Israel recently entered into closer consultations with Macedonia, and a growing partnership is developing there. Negotiations touched on all open issues in bilateral fields, starting from agreements of academic cooperation; economics; issues connected to Holocaust and remembrance; and threats from radical Islam. Also discussed were the multilateral aspects of UN voting. Significantly, in mid-November, the pro-Israel agenda at the UN dealing with the development issue was both sponsored and supported by Macedonia.

This is an essential part of what Israel strives to achieve in its emerging diplomatic cooperation with Balkan states. If these kind of supportive countries in the region continue to vote in a positive way for Israel at the UN, it signals that soft diplomacy is a successful foreign policy effort in meeting Israel’s political goals.

This is in line with the Israeli government position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One of his main goals has been to get the UN to curtail its bias against Israel. Today, UN voting by Balkan countries is generally more positive than other countries. Israel hopes this will remain, and improve, especially with the influence of Donald Trump.

Outgoing U.S. President Obama has been perceived in the Balkans as a weak president who did not stick to his “red lines” declarations in American foreign policy. One example of this was not taking action against Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. Balkan leaders have shared with Israeli diplomats that they did not like Obama’s interference in their region’s domestic issues.

Many Israelis also feel that Obama did not stick to his foreign policy declarations, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives. Moreover, throughout his term in office, Obama has maintained a judgmental attitude towards Israel on internal issues, such as those regarding Israel’s settlement policy.

In general, the Balkan countries today are satisfied with the results of the recent U.S. election. Voices from the region are making it clear that the new American government should implement an effective foreign policy that establishes clear boundaries and deals with real threats to global security. In addition, Trump should be less focused on telling Balkans countries what to do, softer in his approach, exerting less dictated pressure on Balkan leaders, and encouraged to enter into a new political dialogue with them.

An effective new U.S. policy in the Middle East and in the Balkans region will lead to enhanced cooperation, if the incoming Trump administration devotes some time developing these new relationships and listening to key leaders in this part of the world.