An invitation to Israel’s official Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration in Greece was a welcome relief when I found myself stuck in Athens recently. Expecting some falafel and a few folk-singing Israelis, I was hardly prepared for the amazing turnout of 1,000 participants, a veritable who’s who of Greek influencers including the Defense Minister, MPs and senior military officers. Credit goes to ambassador Aryeh Mekel who hosted what was likely the holiday’s single largest diplomatic reception anywhere this year, yet also graphically reflected the times in terms of seismic movement in the region regarding Israel and its relationships.
The road to this event in Athens unsurprisingly, runs directly through Istanbul. Redefined Turkey is trying hard to carve out a new international role, especially attempting to leverage the unrest generated by the Arab Spring upheavals to garner wider influence throughout the Mideast and beyond.
The flip side of the coin is a quick realigning of forces that don’t appreciate what Turkey is trying to do. Veteran Turkey-skeptics Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria are central to the reshaping of regional priorities for Israel, and the huge gas discoveries precisely at the epicenter of this region underscores both the significance and volatility of this the process.
The entire story, the part that transcends the Turkish thrust/ counter-thrust, proves far more intriguing. Delving just one layer deeper offers a wealth of possibilities for savvy Israeli initiatives in a wider sphere of ripening influence. In fact, a true sea change is about to happen for the Jewish state in the heart of the Balkans.
At the heart of this opportunity is the history-hardened love-hate relationship between current players like Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and others. Let’s take tiny Albania as a case in point.
The only Muslim-majority country in Europe yet one of only two which had more Jews inside its borders at the conclusion of World War II than at the outset, it has marched (more precisely been force marched at gunpoint) to the beat of a different drummer for centuries.
What does one expect from a land peopled to the 70% level with Muslims and tightly ruled by Ottoman Mulsims for 500 years? Well, perhaps more than what one gets today. Not a covered woman’s face to be seen anywhere. Free flowing alcohol and pork in the charming street cafes of Tirana. Few speak holy Arabic. And uniform reverence for the Christian George Skanderberg who first fought alongside the Ottomans and then revolted and fought against them, laying the stage for eventual Albanian independence. (When the call to midday prayers was sounded at the central mosque in the capital in the main square, I saw only two Mormon missionaries in the immediate vicinity and they weren’t headed inside.)
Turns out that the natives turned Muslim not so much out of theological fervor but from coercion. Muslims were exempt from usurious taxes on non-Muslims, not to mention mandatory conscription of their sons into the armies of Constantinople. For an easy-going kind of people, Islam seemed not so much opportunistic as sensible.
Moreover, a predominate stream of Islam in Albania are the Baktashis, or Sufis, who constitute the third major world strain of Islam after the more well-known and intense Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Sufis, in the Western eye, are everything their militant coreligionists are NOT: mystical, liberal, embracing the wisdoms of all faiths. In short, not too many suicide bombers working in Kruge.
500 years of Islam just didn’t stick and whatever did survive the Sultan was given a swift kick in the pants by decades of thoroughly eccentric anti-clerical rule by the enigmatic Communist-Maoist strongman EnverHoxha (read crazy—my tour guide pleaded almost to the point of tears for me not to purchase what I considered a riotous red cup with his visage enshrined for future coffees—”very bad man, don’t buy.”)
To understand the Albanian opportunity, and that found throughout the Balkans in both Muslim and non-Muslim cultures, three observations:
- While dirt poor and shamefully mismanaged, the people are hard-working and ambitious; hi-tech, sustainable energy and tourism infrastructures are begging to be developed, and serious pockets of vast natural resources do exist (massive chrome ore to name but one)
- The countries adore and idolize the United States. Beyond the usual reasons of enticing TV programs and alluring McDonalds recipes, they deeply appreciate the American role in safeguarding the freedom—and indeed the lives—of Balkan Muslims (read more pointedly ethnic Albanians) during the bloody civil war there. If Albania sent (symbolically) troops to join the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, that makes the point far more sharply than any words. Coordination in this region with the US to advance Israeli initiatives would be a very smart card to play.
- Finally, due to the history, the Balkan countries are exceptionally wary of Turkey’s new global gambit to extend its influence. They went through this once, it lasted 500 years, and it was not a pleasant experience.
In short, Israel enjoys an historic opportunity to become a significant Balkan actor amongst a collection of genial, friendly new potential allies on the cusp of finally joining a post-Soviet era burst of economic and infrastructure development. I was pleased but not surprised to learn that an Israel Ambassador has been named for Albania (not to mention a Chabad rabbi!), and to randomly meet in the streets of Tirana a former IDF brigadier general hard at work digging for unspecified opportunities and one of Israel’s leading solar energy entrepreneurs visiting to explore “opportunities.”
Thank goodness, Israel has astute guys like Ambassador Aryeh Mekel on the scene in Athens who is canny enough to attract a thousand VIPs to a Yom Ha’atzmaut party in Athens. What he is doing in one locale should be replicated systematically throughout the Balkans. In a few scant years, Israel’s standing in the region can be significantly strengthened. As Turkish noises inevitably grow more vociferous regarding—for example—their “claims” to Mediterranean gas supplies being developed by Israel, it will be much healthier to face that challenge with the entire neighborhood behind us than alone.
Charley J. Levine, CEO of Lone Star Communications, is a media consultant who lives in Jerusalem.