By Rami Ayyub
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel and Kosovo established diplomatic relations on Monday, via online links due to the coronavirus crisis, under a U.S.-brokered deal that includes a pledge by the Muslim-majority country to open an embassy in Jerusalem.
Israel sees its new ties with the tiny Balkan country as part of its broader normalization with Arab and Muslim countries under agreements sponsored by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump announced the two countries’ ties in September as a side deal to an economic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. As part of the deal, Serbia, which has ties with Israel, also agreed to open an embassy in Jerusalem.
During a signing ceremony held via Zoom video conference, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said the new ties were “historic” and “reflect a change in the region, and in the Arab (and) Muslim world’s relationship with Israel.”
Ashkenazi said he had received an official request from Kosovo to establish a Jerusalem embassy, which Israeli officials hope will open by end-March.
Only two countries – the United States and Guatemala – have embassies in Jerusalem. Others, including Malawi and Honduras, have pledged to make the move.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to forging a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who with broad international backing want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as their capital.
The ceremony included the unveiling of a commemorative plaque that will be placed at the entrance to Kosovo’s embassy in Jerusalem upon opening, Israel’s foreign ministry said.
Kosovo Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla said Kosovo and Israel share a “historic bond” and had both “witnessed a long and challenging path to existing as a people and becoming states.”
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising by its ethnic Albanian majority.
Haradinaj-Stublla said she had spoken in recent days with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who she said voiced President Joe Biden’s support for Kosovo’s new relations with Israel and economic agreement with Serbia.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)