Israel's ambivalence over Kosovo

Relief efforts are under way, but officials have been slow to supportairstrikes.

For Israelis, the pictures of ethnic Albanian refugees conjure painful memories of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. But in a country where long-term recall is a national trait, at least some see the distinction between victims and victimizers in the Kosovo crisis as less than black and white.

In response to the conflict in Kosovo, Israel has been torn between sympathy for people subjected to yet another dark chapter of 20th-century European history, and a sense of loyalty to the Serbs who - unlike others in the Balkans - are remembered as resisters to the Nazi war machine during World War II.

Israel has launched a significant relief effort to help Kosovars seeking refuge in Macedonia and Albania. Aid funds are springing up around the country, and on Tuesday Israel sent two planeloads of supplies, plus a third with equipment and personnel for a 100-bed field hospital.

But pronouncements on the official level haven't been as forthcoming. When NATO airstrikes against Serbian military targets began last month, Israel said it would not formally back the bombing, nor would it explicitly condemn the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But after several rounds of scathing censure in the press and from the left-wing opposition, Israeli leaders were prodded to speak out and denounce reported massacres of Kosovars by Serbian troops.

And after coming under attack for espousing a sort of quiet neutrality, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon clarified his position in a statement Friday that critics dismissed as embarrassingly wishy-washy: "As steadfast friends of the United States, we expect that the United States and the NATO forces will do everything possible in order to end the suffering of the innocent, and to bring about negotiations between the parties," said Mr. Sharon.

Many factors underlie Israel's ambivalence. One consideration is Serbia's 3,000-member Jewish community. Israeli officials decided they could not support bombing Belgrade while Jews cowered in bomb shelters there, alongside other Serbs. Another concept - one that Serbian officials have long been trying to sell to Israelis - is that Muslim Kosovar separatists are a danger to Yugoslav sovereignty in the same way that Muslim Palestinian nationalists are a threat to Israel.

Some officials here brought this analogy a step further, arguing that NATO's bombing might set a precedent for the use of international force against Israel, if its land dispute with the Palestinians cannot be resolved peacefully.

Other sources suggest that some Is raeli officials - especially immigrants from Russia - are displaying an openness to Moscow's position on Kosovo at a time when Israel's relationship with the Clinton administration has gone sour.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a leading political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says all these trends rest on erroneous myths. He argues that Serbs, even if relatively friendlier to Jews during World War II than the Croats, fought on both sides of the divide.

"There is a sort of undertone here which, on balance, tends to be more pro-Serb, but this is a historic falsification that has to be set right," Mr. Avineri says. Moreover, yesterday's good behavior, he argues, cannot excuse today's war crimes. He says Israeli officials have had little exposure to anything but the Serbian point of view but have been shifting their tone in the past few days.

"It took time for Israeli officials to accommodate themselves to a complex situation, but the damage has been done in terms of the moral position of Israel," says Avineri, who has visited the former Yugoslavia on academic missions examining ethnic war in the Balkans.

After Sharon's earlier neutrality, Mr. Netanyahu has come around to condemn "the massacres being perpetrated by the Serbs ... both because of our history and because of our moral perception."

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