War in the Balkans: View From Jerusalem - Independent Kosovo `could challenge Israeli interests'

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The Independent Online
ARIEL SHARON, the Israeli Foreign Minister, has a unique view of the threat in the Balkans. It is not of a triumphant Serbia expelling Kosovars. It is that the present crisis will end with an independent Kosovo becoming part of a greater Albania and "a focus for extremist Islamic terror that will spread in Europe".

Quite how the stumbling columns of Kosovan refugees will become a threat to anybody he does not explain. But Mr Sharon's belief, expressed with increasing vigour over the last two weeks to the amazement of the United States and the embarrassment of his own government, is that "a big bloc of Islamic states" may be established in Europe.

The office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, says the Foreign Minister was "expressing his private views only". Israel is to take in 100 Kosovan refugees, has sent a 100-bed field hospital to Macedonia and last night there was an open-air rally in Tel Aviv to collect money for the victims of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

It will not be enough to calm American irritation and will further cool relations between Israel and Washington, already frostybecause of Israel's non-implementation of the US-brokered accords with the Palestinians signed last year. Mr Sharon may have a chance to find this out for himself when he meets Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, later today.

There are obvious reasons for Israel's luke-warm support for the Nato action. There is historic sympathy for the Serbs because of their role in the Second World War, a sense that Israel should not take sides in age-old Balkan conflicts and a fear that one day foreign intervention against sovereign states might be directed against Israel.

Mr Sharon's policies, though often maverick, are often strategically astute. In this case his motive is probably a wish to cultivate Russia, whose Foreign Minister is to visit next week for the third time in a month. In an interview with Israeli radio he said: "It's important to look forward and see that Russia is coming back to the Middle East."

Israel wants Russia to stop helping Iran to build missiles and to keep open communications between the large Jewish community remaining in Russia and Israel. If Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Prime Minister, offered to scale down the transfer of missile technology to Iran it would be a boost to Mr Netanyahu before the Israeli election on 17 May.

Russia has expressed "satisfaction" at Mr Sharon's reservations over Nato action. It wants a relaxation of pressure from Jewish lobbying groups on the US Congress to force the administration to impose sanctions on Moscow. Mr Netanyahu has already asked the US to suspend for six months plans to increase sanctions on Russia.