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Opinion | Israel Just Dropped a Diplomatic Bomb Into Bosnia’s Politics

Israel's strikingly gratuitous act of political interference into Bosnia's fragile and fractious politics threatens to harm relations with both the Balkan state's Muslims and Jews

Israel’s unwelcomed meddling in Bosnia's fragile, fractious politics is both foolish and unethicalCredit: AP Photo/Armin Durgut

With only two months left before the general election in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel threw a diplomatic bomb into an already heated Bosnian election debate.

A memorandum by the Israeli Embassy in Tirana, leaked to the media in early August, shocked observers by supporting a highly disputed electoral reform proposal favored by a far-right Bosnian Croat political party. With it, Israel has formally endorsed the destructive policies of the governments of Croatia, Russia, and Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban in the Balkan region.

The proposed law seeks to gerrymander the Bosnian election districts to over-represent the Bosnian Croat voters of the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) in the House of Peoples – the upper chamber of the Bosnian Parliament.

The law, as designed, will disenfranchise all non-HDZ voters in the country’s Federation entity, who would have less influence in the upper chamber. But its chief purpose is to diminish the electoral power of Bosniak voters, who would be prevented from voting for Croat representatives to the House of Peoples from parts of the Federation where Croats are in the minority. Bosniaks were the victims of genocide during the 1992-95 war, but still make up the majority of the population.

The memorandum has outraged the non-HDZ voters as well as the political leaderswho seek the reforms necessary to ensure Bosnia operates as a democratic country that allows equal political participation to all of its citizens, including Bosnian Jews, Roma, and those who do not want to declare their ethnic status.

The synagogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia: Gratuitously antagonizing a Muslim-majority nation in Europe with long history of protecting Jews and Jewish heritage cannot be in Israel’s interestsCredit: Kemal Softic / AP

Jakob Finci, the recently retired president of Bosnia’s Jewish community, declared himself “astonished” that Israel’s first ever act of interference in Bosnian internal affairs was not to help the local Jewish community, nor at its request, but to give partisan aid one specific political party in the country.

The messy aftermath of the embassy memorandum needs to be urgently managed by the caretaker Israeli government. Israel’s unwelcomed meddling has created a backlash among a Muslim-majority population which has a well-documented history of centuries of living together in peace with Jews. Sephardic Jews who fled to Bosnia in the 15th century after being expelled from Spain, during the period of the Inquisition, have been fully integrated into Bosnia’s historically multi-confessional society, and – in the case of Sarajevo – lived integrated lives without ever having been confined to a ghetto.

Jewish leaders across the world stood with the Bosniaks when they were targeted for extermination by the Serb nationalists. The Bosnian Jewish community provided numerous Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and other Bosnian citizens with safe passage out of Sarajevo during the 1992-1995 siege, and many remain grateful to the Jewish communal groups, La Benevolencija and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for their humanitarian programs: parcels of food and medicines provided to thousands of people.

Clearly, the Israeli government has little understanding of the history of HDZ, the Bosnian Croat political party it chose to support. HDZ-run municipalities have numerous streets named after important figures who served in the Nazi-puppetIndependent State of Croatia (NDH).

Ultra-nationalist, genocide-denying Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik at Yad Vashem notes the "special energy that permeates" the visitor to the Holocaust memorial

In the recent past, the HDZ leadership have lionized convicted war criminals and cozied up to Putin’s Russia. Their partnership with ultra-nationalist (and genocide-denying) Serbs, led by Milorad Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), is focused on obstructing the implementation of the European Court of Human Rights rulings in the Sejdic-Finci and Zornic cases that affirmed the right of Jewish and Roma citizens to run for key political positions in Bosnia.

The visits last month to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, by Dragan Covic, president of the HDZ, as well as by Milorad Dodik, were attempts to gaslight the Israeli public and a highly respected Israeli institution by Bosnia’s most nationalistic and reactionary political actors. Covic’s party voted againstrenaming street names glorifying Nazi collaborators, sympathizers and apologists in HDZ-controlled municipalities, and has recently even honored fallen fascist Ustasha soldiers, who served the Third Reich, near Mostar.

Fresh from visiting Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic honors Nazi collaborators - fallen Ustasha soldiers

Jewish genocide scholar, Menachem Rosensaft, has called Dodik an “ultranationalist Serb genocide denier” on the pages of Haaretz. Still, parts of Israeli political establishment have chosento cooperate with Dodik, who is under U.S. and UK sanctions for violating the Dayton peace accords.

As Bosnian Jewish leader Jakob Finci suspects, Covic and Dodik managed to persuade or manipulate Israel’s foreign policy bureaucracy to work against the interests of even the Jewish community in Bosnia.

Finci called the leaked memorandum “contradictory” and claimed that it was “either the result of successful lobbying or confusion,” and went as far as to accuse the Israeli government of standing in oppositionto the interests of the Jewish community in Bosnia.

Bisera Turkovic, the Bosnian foreign minister, herself of Jewish heritage, rightly demarched the Israeli government demanding an explanation. But Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s government is yet to respond. That silence, after such striking interference, threatens to subject Israel to accusations of utter contempt and disrespect for the Bosnian government.

Bosnian Croat and Serb leaders, Covic and Dodik, have managed to persuade or manipulate Israel’s foreign policy bureaucracy to work against the interests of even the Jewish community in BosniaCredit: Diego Delso/ Wiki Commons; graficriver_icons_logo/ Shutterstock. Artwork: Anastasia Shub

Israeli officials should take into account the words of the head of the Association of Former Prison Camp Inmates in Mostar, Emir Hajdarovic, who wrote to the Israeli Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler, in the wake of the leaked memo. Hajdarovic noted that those who oppose the idea of ethnically ‘cleansed’ regions – particularly in in the area of Mostar and Herzegovina – “were pained by the fact that you supported exactly such an idea.”

Rather than pushing Bosnian Muslims, who have never persecuted Jews, into becoming enemies of Israel, the Israeli government should focus its efforts on shaming the municipalities run by Dodik and Covic’s to stop glorifying the Nazis’ Ustasha and Chetnik allies.

Antagonizing a Muslim-majority nation in Europe with long history of protecting Jews and Jewish heritage cannot be in Israel’s interests. As the Bosnian-Israeli opera vocalist Margit Tomik-Levy wrote in her open letter to Ambassador Gendler – Israel’s representative throughout the Balkan region from Tirana, Albania – the memorandum “spits in the face of all democratically oriented citizens of BiH, including all Bosnian Jews.”

Now is time for the Israeli government to issue a public apology to the Bosnian government and its public. Without one, Israel risks causing irreparable harm in its relationship with both Bosnia’s Muslims and Jews.

Reuf Bajrovic is the Vice President at US-Europe Alliance and a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Twitter: @reufbajrovic

Tanya Domi is an adjunct assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a faculty affiliate of the Harriman Institute. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding in Washington, D.C. @TanyaDomi





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