Under the current political situation between Belgrade and Priština, but even more so with the whole package the U.S. administration put on the table, for all three parties – Serbia, Kosovo and Israel – we felt this could be a game changer under which it would serve our interests to change our policy towards Kosovo – Ambassador Yahel Vilan
The new Israeli ambassador arrived in Serbia during the time of two significant changes in bilateral relations. After more than a decade of refusing to recognise the independence of Kosovo, led by the stance that it could set a bad precedent, Israel announced that it is changing its decision. At the same time, and on the basis of an agreement reached with U.S. President Donald Trump, Serbia should join the small number of countries that have relocated their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In this interview for CorD Magazine, ambassador Yahel Vilan says that implementing this element of the agreement will be high on his list of priorities. At the same time, he adds, he will lobby for the strengthening of economic relations and the arrival of new Israeli investors in Serbia.
Your Excellency, having arrived in Serbia only recently, what have you set as the goals of your ambassadorial term in Belgrade?
The goal of our Embassy in the next couple of years will, of course, be to further improve the great relations that already exist between Serbia and Israel. The decision of President Vučić to relocate the Embassy of Serbia to Jerusalem will also be very high on our agenda for the coming year.
In addition, we will try to bring more companies to invest, to do business between Israel and Serbia, and when the COVID-19 Pandemic is over I hope to see a way for more tourists to travel between Serbia and Israel.
You arrived at a very interesting juncture for bilateral relations between Israel and Serbia. What do you expect from the newly opened office of the Government of Serbia in Jerusalem, which is set to deal with economic cooperation?
The Office of the Government of Serbia in Jerusalem definitely sends a message that economic cooperation is one of the main focuses of our bilateral relations and an area in which Serbia would like to see improvements.
In addition, it has been mentioned that the Office will concentrate on cooperation in the innovation sector and innovative economy. This includes a wide spectrum of high-tech and cyber tech, and presents a great opportunity for both countries.
Due to the many similarities between us, Serbia has chosen Israel as the model of how a small country can turn into a start-up nation with an innovation ecosystem. We have had numerous Israeli speakers in Serbia at various events, conferences, bilateral visits and similar. Initial contacts between the two tech communities have been created. What we would like to see in the future are concrete joint ventures, joint projects and business deals between the two communities. The Office of the Government of Serbia will definitely assist in this matter.
In this regard, I would like to use this opportunity to mention that we have just appointed an Israeli Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee for Economic and Trade Cooperation. We hope to see the first joint committee meeting held in the near future, after Serbia appoints its representative.
Which areas of the economy do you consider as being particularly interesting when it comes to strengthening mutual cooperation?
Traditional areas of cooperation, such as agriculture, have room for further expansion, especially in the field of precise agriculture and irrigation.
Another area of cooperation that the Embassy of Israel is promoting is water management and clean tech. On its EU accession road, Serbia will have to develop 350 water treatment facilities. On the other hand, Israel holds the world record in recycling, with 85% of wastewater purified to the level of use in agriculture. In this regard, Israeli knowhow can be of great use to Serbia. Only last year we held a water conference and business forum in Novi Sad to encourage more cooperation in this field.
In line with the newly opened State Office for Economic Cooperation in Jerusalem, IT and cyber tech are the areas in which we hope to see major breakthroughs. The time has come to further expand opportunities for businesses to cooperate on joint ventures and R&D centres, and maybe encourage mutual investment funds.
It has been mentioned that the Office will concentrate on cooperation in the innovation sector and innovative economy. This includes a wide spectrum of high-tech and cyber tech, and presents a great opportunity for both countries
The public is extremely interested in the announced relocating of the Serbian Embassy to Jerusalem, in accordance with an agreement reached in Washington. Did you receive confirmation that Serbia will move the embassy by July 2021 during your recent conversation with the President of Serbia?
That is a very important issue for us. Naturally, we believe that all embassies of countries that are present in Israel should be located in our capital, Jerusalem. Of course, we warmly welcome Serbia’s decision to move its Embassy to Jerusalem by July next year. We will do our utmost to work together with the Government of Serbia to see that happen. In my meeting with President Vučićc we discussed the ways Israel and Serbia should work together on various issues.
Your country spent more than a decade in the group of UN members that don’t recognise the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo. What led to Israel changing its stance?
In the past there were two main reasons that caused us to refrain from recognition. One is, and always was, our strong and important relations with Serbia, and the second was the precedent it could represent concerning the Palestinian issue. One could rightly claim that these two reasons remain very relevant today.
And yet, under the current political situation between Belgrade and Priština, but even more so with the whole package that the U.S. administration put on the table, for all three parties – Serbia, Kosovo and Israel – we felt this could be a game changer under which it would serve our interests to amend our policy towards Kosovo.
Can you explain whether and when the announcement of the recognition of Kosovo will be formalised (If that does not happen by October, as it is not yet formal)?
It is a fact that, besides the statements made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli Foreign Minister Ashkenazi and American President Trump on 4th September, to the best of my knowledge nothing has yet been done on the ground between Israel and Kosovo towards realising the mutual recognition as stated in the Washington agreement.
As far as I know, there are no timelines as yet. What I can assure you is that we will be informing our friends in Serbia about our moves. I will do my utmost to make sure that we do this with full transparency and Serbia’s knowledge in advance.
What forms the basis of your belief that this move by the Israeli government, which was only agreed in Washington with the Kosovo side, will not jeopardise your country’s relations with Serbia?
One can never be sure about political moves and how they will impact future relations, but I can definitely hope that, based on our long-lasting friendship and the importance that the two countries attach to each other, we will also find ways to overcome this decision by Israel.
Let us not forget that Serbia has great relations with many countries around the world that have recognised Kosovo. The same goes for Israel with countries that have recognised Palestine.
After formally recognising Kosovo’s independence, will Israel support Kosovo’s request for membership in the UN and other international organisations?
At this point not actively, I assume, but there was no discussion of that topic whatsoever. I think it is too early. As a country that has suffered like no other in the United Nations arena, I can assure you that Israel will express the highest sensitivities regarding that issue.
In the past there were two main reasons that caused us to refrain from recognition. One is, and always was, our strong and important relations with Serbia, and the second was the precedent it could represent concerning the Palestinian issue. One could rightly claim that these two reasons remain very relevant today
Washington and U.S. President Trump are linked to another meeting that has been characterised in the media as historic. Can you tell us what you expect from the agreement on the normalisation of relations between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE?
We appreciate President Trump and his role in the peace agreements between Israel and the two important Gulf countries of the UAE and Bahrain. For us, this is the sign of a new era.
Primarily, I would like to point out one very basic psychological element. Namely, Israel and Israelis are living in a very claustrophobic environment, in a huge geographic area extending from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east. If you check the whole corridor, until now we have only established friendly diplomatic relations with two countries – Egypt and Jordan. So, upgrading such a reality to include another two countries in the heart of the Gulf is significant for us, as a people.
On top of that, there are significant positive economic outcomes for very important players in various financial fields, from tourism, aviation and numerous other investments. In the last week alone, after the agreement was signed, we witnessed many connections between companies on both sides. There is an interest in investing in the Israeli high-tech sector and we believe that, economically, this can be a boost for both Israel and those countries, and for the world as a whole.
Politically, it is a strong sign for other countries that never had any real reason not to talk to Israel or have peaceful relations with Israel and which have just allowed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to overtake their own interests. I hope they will understand that this should not remain a condition and that we can move forward in a positive direction.
I also hope that it will help bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table, because for too long they’ve felt that there is lot of support for their hard-line position. I am optimistic that this breakthrough will lead to a resumption of the peace negotiations between us and the Palestinians.
The world is facing a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. News initially arrived from Israel, in March 2020, about successes achieved in working on a vaccine against the virus. How much progress has been made with that?
Like most other researchers around the world, Israeli experts are fully committed to finding a solution that will help all people.
We have numerous scientific centres and institutes in Israel that are exerting all their efforts and knowledge to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
Once any major breakthrough comes, it will be in the media at the very same moment. I hope it will happen soon, so we can share it with the world.
We appreciate President Trump and his role in the peace agreements between Israel and the two important Gulf countries of the UAE and Bahrain. For us, this is the sign of a new era
One gets the impression that the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is also a training ground for the continuation of the political struggle on the international scene. When news arrives from Israel about the country’s readiness to cooperate with Russia in the continuation of the testing of a Russian vaccine, does that prompt negative comments from your partners in the West?
Israel is cooperating with whomever possible, because we don’t believe that there should be room for politics in saving the lives of millions of people around the world. Just a few months ago, we conducted some successful trials with India and I’m sure that we’re working with all possible partners and countries. Politics must not play any role in that field, as we should all unite to fight COVID-19.
In line with the newly opened State Office for Economic Cooperation in Jerusalem, IT and cyber tech are the areas in which we hope to see major breakthroughs
We warmly welcome Serbia’s decision to move its Embassy to Jerusalem by July next year. We will do our utmost to work together with the Government of Serbia to see that happen
As a country that has suffered like no other in the United Nations arena, I can assure you that Israel will express the highest sensitivities regarding that issue