The Slatest

Trump Negotiates a Deal Between Serbia and Kosovo That’s Mostly About … Israel?

U.S. President Donald Trump, Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sit with other politicians in the Oval Office.
U.S. President Donald Trump, Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic listen to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

President Donald Trump boasted Friday about “another great day for peace with Middle East.”

The agreement he’s discussing, however, doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with the Middle East, or peace for that matter. In fairness to the administration, it is a step in the right direction toward resolving a long-running conflict in the Balkans, even if it is again greatly exaggerating what was achieved, and even if the agreement came about in very strange, Trumpian fashion.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, about a decade after a brutal war that killed more than 13,000 people and resulted in a NATO intervention. One hundred and sixteen countries, including the United States, currently recognize Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia—and crucially, its ally Russia—do not. Until relations between Serbia and Kosovo are normalized, it will be almost impossible for Kosovo to attain membership in the United Nations or for either country to join the EU.

Achieving a peace deal between the two longtime enemies has been a pet project of Richard Grenell, Trump’s former ambassador to Germany and former acting director of national intelligence.* Grenell’s initiative has annoyed European governments, who have pursued their own Balkan peace efforts for years.

To Grenell’s credit, he managed to get the two governments to agree to a summit with Trump at the White House last June, though that meeting had to be postponed after Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was indicted on war crimes charges.

This week, the meeting finally happened with Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti taking Thaci’s place for talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, and on Friday afternoon the two sides reached a deal—or rather, deals. As Axios reports, Grenell “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.”

The deal mostly involves economic issues, and some of it just confirms commitments to previous agreements. It does include a commitment from Kosovo to halt its campaign for membership in international organizations and for Serbia to halt its campaign to get other countries and organizations to derecognize Kosovo, for one year. This is something Grenell had been pushing for without much success until now.

It does not include Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence—something the Serbs had firmly ruled out before the meeting—which actually would be a major diplomatic breakthrough if it happened.

There’s also a grab bag of priorities in the deal that seem like things that matter more to the Trump administration than either of the two other parties. Both sides agreed not to use 5G equipment provided by “untrusted vendor”—i.e., China’s Huawei—and both agreed to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Then there was the thing Trump was most excited about: the deal involving Israel.

Putting aside the fact that Kosovo is not in “the Middle East” by anyone’s definition, Trump’s effort here to cast this as some sort of sequel to last month’s Israel-UAE deal is highly misleading.

Unlike the UAE, Kosovo has not been resisting diplomatic relations with Israel. Its staunchly pro-American government has been desperately courting Israel, with Thaci vowing in 2018 that he would build an embassy in Jerusalem if Israel recognized Kosovo’s independence. Israel is the one that’s been wary, partly out of fear of the precedent Kosovo’s independence could set for Palestine. Trump reportedly called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Friday’s meeting to seal the deal. Serbia also agreed to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the U.S.’s lead.

You could say this is another example of Netanyahu doing Trump a favor, allowing him to claim a diplomatic win and burnish his pro-Israel credibility ahead of the election. But how many U.S. voters are there who see Kosovo-Israel relations as a front-burner issue?

Correction, Sept. 4, 2020: This piece originally erroneously referred to Richard Grenell as the acting national security adviser.