Israelis are divided over NATO’s military campaign against Serbia — and opinions and policy are being informed as much by history and the Holocaust as by current political realities.
Israeli sympathy for the Serbs, who were fellow victims of the Nazis during World War II, is countered by the images of massacres and streams of refugees as ethnic Albanians flee their native Kosovo.
Some 72 percent of Israelis support Israel’s relief efforts for the ethnic Albanians who are fleeing Kosovo, according to a poll by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke for many when he said last week: “Israel condemns the massacre being carried out by the Serbs and denounces any mass murder.”
Others, recalling how some Albanians actively supported the Nazis, find themselves less sympathetic to the plight of the Kosovar Albanians.
And still others, believing that the “friend of my enemy is my enemy,” are focused on the outside support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which spearheaded the fight for independence from Serbia before Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic clamped down on the region with an iron fist.
Elyakim Haetzni, an outspoken supporter of Israeli nationalism, lashed out last week at the “leftists” who, in their support for the Kosovo refugees, are “ignoring the fact that the KLA was collaborating with the Iranians and other enemies of Israel.”
But even left-wing Israelis are not unanimous in support of the NATO raids.
Among them is Raul Teitelbaum, a veteran journalist who, at the end of 1943, was among the Jews of Prizren, Kosovo, who were put on a transport to Bergen-Belsen by members of an Albanian division that was working on behalf of the Nazi SS.
“Of course, there were among the Albanians those who fought against the Nazis,” Teitelbaum told JTA. “But those who now say that the Albanians were known to have given shelter to the Jews are manipulating history.
“Clinton says the bombings in Yugoslavia are a lesson of the Holocaust. How can one compare this with the Holocaust? How can tiny Serbia be compared with a world power like Nazi Germany? How can Milosevic be compared with Hitler?”
Teitelbaum also questioned the effectiveness of the NATO raids.
“In a way, President Bill Clinton is the best ally of President Milosevic,” he said. “Thanks to the bombings, there is no longer any [internal] opposition to Milosevic. Thanks to the bombings, Milosevic is able to carry out ethnic cleansing on a scope he had never dreamed of before.”
On the other side of the divide, people such as Labor Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami, a historian, had only praise for the NATO operation. In his view, the operation has changed international norms of behavior in the face of atrocities that used to be considered “an internal matter.”
“Kosovo is a belated response to the Nazis,” said Ben-Ami. “From now on, intervention on a moral and humanitarian level is justified.”
Just the same, he conceded — as the Pentagon has already done — that the NATO strikes were unable to stop Serbian roundups of the ethnic Albanians.
“Alas, even the greatest military power in the world, the NATO alliance, cannot prevent a genocide,” said Ben-Ami.
As the public debate continued, the Israeli government, caught up in an election campaign, appeared uncertain how to respond to the NATO offensive.
Israel’s relations with Serbia have been problematic ever since the disintegration of Yugoslavia earlier in the decade. Despite memories of the Serbs as fellow victims of Nazi oppression and despite the fact that Bosnian Moslems were being aided by volunteers from Iran, Israel could not allow itself to support Milosevic, an international outcast.
Israel’s diplomatic relations with Serbia were resumed only three years ago, after the war in Bosnia had cooled. Since then, Israel’s arms industry has sought to sell military equipment to Serbia.
The Serbs have reportedly appealed to Israel for military supplies, according to the April 1 edition of the newsletter Foreign Report. In addition to what the London-based newsletter described as a “shopping list of military equipment,” it says the Serbs are also seeking medicines and credit. The Israeli response is not known.
It was not until March 31, a week after the offensive began, that Netanyahu, denying allegations that he had failed to express his position on the Kosovo crisis, came out in support of the NATO operation.
But his foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, was less enthusiastic regarding the NATO strikes. In remarks quoted last week by Yediot, Sharon told a closed-door audience that Israel had reason not to support the strikes, out of fear that the Jewish state might one day be similarly targeted.
The newspaper said that he asked his audience to imagine what might happen if the Arab residents of the Galilee ever demanded that their region be recognized as autonomous — with links to the Palestinian Authority. Would NATO strike at Israel under such a scenario, as it had done in the wake of the Kosovo Albanians’ attempts at autonomy, Sharon asked.
“Israel must look to the future. It should not give legitimacy to an intervention like that exercised by NATO,” Yediot quoted Sharon as saying.
Sharon subsequently denied the report, as he stated that Israel expects “NATO forces do their utmost to end the misery of innocent people and renew the negotiations between the parties as soon as possible.”
But the subject came up again during a meeting with European ambassadors, when Sharon was asked by the ambassador of Italy what Israel would do if the Palestinians asked for international intervention, as the ethnic Albanians had.
“I hope the question remains hypothetic,” said Sharon. “Israel will never succumb to international pressure.”
While most Israelis are spurning such historical analogies, one journalist saw a parallel between the Kosovo Albanians and the Palestinians.
Harking back to the 1948 War of Independence, Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz wrote: “Kosovo has already been here. At the time, there was no NATO and no television from all over the world, but during 20 months, between December 1947 and September of 1949, between 600,000 to 760,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were deported from their homes and turned overnight into refugees.”
Meanwhile, as the debate continues, Israel has begun sending aid to the Kosovo refugees.
Last Friday, an Israeli plane carrying warm clothes, tents, medicines and other equipment was sent to help those refugees who had fled to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
And during a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, the government agreed to send additional aid, including a medical team of eight doctors to set up a field hospital in either Albania or Macedonia. Health Minister Yehoshua Matza is leading the mission.
JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.