Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)
Albania, under its Communist regime, granted Israel formal recognition shortly after Israel declared its independence in 1948. This act coincided with the policy of all the East European Communist countries toward Israel. Yet, unlike them, Albania declined to establish diplomatic, commercial, and cultural relations between the two countries. After the Six Day War, Israel gave up its endeavors in this respect, since all the Communist countries – with the exception of Romania – now broke off. their diplomatic ties with Israel. It was only toward the end of its Communist rule that Albania initiated the establishment of diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with Israel.
Swift Recognition, No Relations
Albania was the only country in the East European Communist bloc that declined to establish diplomatic, trade, and economic relations with Israel throughout the Cold War Era, from the time it recognized Israel de jure in 1949 until the collapse of the Albanian Communist regime in 1991. This unwillingness contradicted the friendly message of a telegram sent on 16 April 1949 from Albania’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Enver Hoxha to Israel’s Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, which accompanied the granting of official recognition to Israel.
The telegram stated: “The government of the People’s Republic of Albania along with the Albanian people have been following with interest the efforts the Jewish people have invested in the restoration of their independence and their sovereignty. They are happy to see that these efforts have been crowned with success with Israel’s declaration of its statehood.”1
Albania’s recognition of Israel was given in response to a letter from Sharett to Hoxha dated 13 February 1949.2 Israel’s request to Albania for recognition was sent nine months after Israel declared its independence, unlike similar approaches Israel made to other East European countries shortly after that event. No explanation has been found for this.3 Possibly, Sharett along with the heads of his ministry felt that approaching Albania sooner would have been inappropriate so long as Hoxha was waging a struggle to establish his rule there.4 However, Albania’s swift and positive response in April 1949 should be seen in light of three factors:
- Albania belonged to the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union, which supported Israel’s establishment and was the first country to grant it formal recognition.
- Albania’s small Jewish community was saved during the Nazi occupation thanks to the protection of the Albanians, the majority of whom were Muslims.5
- Hoxha had led the Albanian underground that fought against the Italian and German occupation (1939-1944) of his country.
Nevertheless, despite recognizing Israel’s independence, Albania did not respond to repeated Israeli approaches to establish diplomatic, commercial, and economic relations. On the contrary, Albania regarded Israel with great hostility, especially following the Six Day War when the Communist-bloc countries, except Romania, severed diplomatic ties with it. Albanian did so even though it was then involved in a harsh dispute with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Its attitude only changed in the late 1980s when the democratization process began.
Israel’s Rejected Overtures
What explains the fact that, whereas Albania officially recognized Israel, it refrained from establishing relations with it for forty-two years?
The first available evidence on Albania’s position regarding relations is in a memorandum from Shlomo Leibovitch of the Research Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, dated 15 December 1954, to the head of the East European Department. Leibovitch reported that the French Foreign Ministry had recently become interested in diplomatic relations between Israel and Albania, but Tirana had informed Paris that: “This possibility has never been discussed.”6
Israeli Foreign Ministry documents show that its representatives made several overtures to Albanian officials between 1955-1967:
1. Reuven Nal, chargé d’affaires of Israel’s legation in Sofia, visited Tirana in July 1955. In a letter to the head of the East European Department from 9 December 1956, he mentions the visit and says its purpose was: “First to establish the fact of a visit of an official representative of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Albania, and second, to try to forge contact with the Albanian government to raise the question of Jewish immigration to Israel. Officially, the visit was to explore the possibility of opening commercial relations.”7
2. In May 1958, the Israeli legation in Prague forwarded an official communication to the Albanian legation there with a proposal to establish Israeli-Albanian commercial relations. No response was ever received.8 In addition, Shmuel Bendor, Israel’s ambassador in Prague, spoke with his Albanian counterpart there about commercial ties; again, no reply was forthcoming.9
3. On 3 September 1961, Katriel Salmon, Israel’s ambassador in Bucharest, was instructed to request Albania’s approval to be appointed nonresident ambassador in Tirana. The appeal was delivered to Albania’s ambassador in Bucharest, but again there was no response.10 In a report from 9 October 1961 to the head of the East European Department, about his conversation on this subject with the Albanian ambassador, Salmon says he felt a coolness toward the idea. In his opinion, there were three reasons for it: (a) the Albanian ambassador could not react differently until he received instructions; (b) possibly because of Albania’s tense relations with other countries in the Eastern bloc, its hosting a nonresident Israeli ambassador would be resented; and (c) Albania’s special relationship with the People’s Republic of China and with the United Arab Republic since the 1956 Sinai Campaign made it unwilling to have ties with Israel.11
Albania was then in conflict with its Eastern-bloc neighbors based on ideological opposition – initially Stalinist, now Maoist – to the domestic policy of Yugoslavia’s President Tito. In addition, Albania strongly opposed the de-Stalinization process in the Soviet Union and as a result even broke off diplomatic relations with it. Instead Albania forged ties with the People’s Republic of China, which maintained no relations with Israel and headed those opposing the Soviet Union in the Communist world.
On top of all this was the Sinai Campaign, in which Israel’s joint military operation with France and Britain was condemned by the Arab world, the Communist bloc, and the nonaligned nations.
Subsequently there were three further Israeli attempts, apparently influenced by a statement in the official newspaper of Albania’s Communist Party, Zeri i Poppulitt, on 9 January 1962. Albania, the paper said, wanted to establish diplomatic, economic, and trade relations with all the capitalistic countries, especially its neighbors, on the basis of peaceful coexistence. This avowal, accompanied by moves to open commercial ties with a number of Western countries, seems to have led the Israeli Foreign Ministry to renew its – albeit futile – efforts to forge relations with Albania:
1. In October 1962, the head of the East European Department toured the areas under his jurisdiction. The Albanian government refused to grant him a permit to enter the country.12
2. In 1964, the Israeli ambassador to Romania, Eliezer Doron, was instructed to discuss diplomatic ties with his Albanian counterpart in Bucharest. However, after the Albanian ambassador reported on the talk to his foreign minister, no reply was received.13
3. In February 1967, Doron renewed his contacts with the Albanian ambassador. Albania did not respond to this approach either.14
This was Israel’s last initiative to establish diplomatic and economic ties with Albania. In the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, Albania joined the other Eastern-bloc countries – except Romania – along with the Arab countries in their stridently anti-Israeli policy, both at home and abroad.
On 19 August 2002, this author asked Bashkim Dino, formerly Albania’s ambassador to Israel and head of its Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Department toward the end of Communist rule, why he thought Albania ignored Israel’s overtures in the 1950s and 1960s. In a letter dated 25 December 2002, he responded that:
“Albania and the Albanian people have always assumed a friendly attitude towards the State of Israel and its people….The friendly relations between the Albanians and the Jews are deeply rooted in history, but they know the apogee [sic ] during the Second World War, when Albania and all the Albanian people harbored, protected and saved all the Jews in Albania from the Nazi Holocaust….The Jews who lived in Albania considered it as a second mother country and side by side with the Albanian people gave their valuable contribution for the developing and prosperity of Albania.”
He added, however:
…the former dictatorial socialist regime of Albania following a prejudiced foreign policy against the USA and some of its western partners, Israel included, it is understandable and clear that the Albanian former regime would not have the will to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel….Albania under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorial regime, was in full solidarity with the revolutionary movements in general and with the PLO in particular. Furthermore, at the time the State of Israel was considered in Albania as a “lackey” of the United States, while Israeli foreign policy was condemned as a policy in the service of the “imperialistic powers.” Israel was called “pistol of the USA” in the Middle East….
Dino’s words make clear that if not for the change of regime in Albania and the radical revision of its domestic and foreign policy, it is doubtful that it would have established ties with Israel. The Muslim majority among the Albanian people, however, had no role in determining Albania’s policy toward Israel either in the Communist era or subsequently.
A Changing Attitude
The first indication of a change in Albania’s policy toward Israel was a conversation initiated by its ambassador in Rome, Dashnor Darvishi, with his Israeli counterpart Mordechai Drori in mid-May 1990. Attributing the lack of ties to the “blackmail of the Arab states,” Darvishi said it was becoming absurd that Arab countries such as Egypt maintained full diplomatic relations with Israel while Albania avoided all contact.15 The Albanian ambassador to Egypt expressed the same view to his Israeli counterpart. Drori was told to inform Darvishi that any Albanian diplomatic initiative “would be given the appropriate attention by us.”16
Some months later an Albanian diplomat in Paris, probably the ambassador, gave an interview to the correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Davar, Gideon Kutz, that was published on 14 October 1990. It was the first such interview granted by an Albanian official to an Israeli journalist, and the former stated:
“There is absolutely no reason why diplomatic relations between the two countries will not be established in the future, even if the present international situation does not permit their immediate renewal.17 In addition, Albania would be pleased to receive proposals from Israeli businessmen to invest in Albania, which is rich in natural resources and is interested in developing its technological infrastructure.18″
This was the first Albanian public statement in this vein, and was made in the framework of Albania’s plan to develop its relations with the West. Soon after, on 14 March 1991, Albania renewed ties with the United States after a fifty-two-year break.19 On that very day, Albania’s Foreign Minister Muhamet Kapllani stated at a press conference in Rome that his country “would shortly establish diplomatic relations with Israel.”20 This was the first such declaration by an Albanian foreign minister.
On 16 March 1991, the Israeli and Albanian ambassadors in Rome met for a discussion. The latter mentioned the free Albanian elections to be held on 31 March, and their expected outcome.As he anticipated, the Labor Party (the former Communist Party) won, and made it a priority to establish relations with Israel.21
Darvishi further stated that an Albania-Israel Friendship Society had been formed in Tirana, and invited Drori to be guest of honor at its inaugural ceremony in April. Drori participated, and Kutz reported that the organization numbered 150 members including journalists, scientists, teachers, government officials, physicians, and other professionals.22 The event took place about three weeks after the general Albanian elections, during which both the ruling party and the opposition party declared that they would establish relations with Israel.23 Then-President Elija, who was defeated, said on the day of the elections: “we always believed that no problems existed between Albania and Israel. On the contrary, our relationship with the Jewish people has always been positive. No Jew in Albania was ever handed over to the Nazis during World War II. Israel has a problem with the Arabs and we hope that this conflict can be solved peacefully and as quickly as possible in accordance with the wishes of the two peoples – Israeli and Arab.”
As Kutz noted, “These words, stated during a press conference in the Palace of Congresses in Tirana, were broadcast in their entirety on official Albanian television.”24
The Forging of Ties
On 19 July 1991, Ambassador Drori visited Tirana. In a meeting with Kapllani, he gave him an invitation from Israel’s Foreign Minister David Levy to visit Israel for a formal launching of relations.25 Kapllani came to Israel on 18 August, and the next day the two foreign ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing diplomatic ties.
In an initial working session between the two ministers in Jerusalem, Israel also expressed readiness to share information about its technological and other achievements. It was suggested that an Albanian delegation first visit Israel to receive such information, and subsequently that an Israeli delegation go to Albania to explore ways in which Israel could lend assistance. Specifically, Levy proposed: establishing twenty-five scholarships for Albanians to participate in courses organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Cooperation, setting up two mobile Israeli courses in Albania in areas of interest to the Albanians, and encouraging Israeli businessmen to become active in Albania.26
Kapllani received these proposals favorably. Levy also expressed appreciation for the Albanian people’s assistance to Jews during the Holocaust, and for Albania’s allowing Jewish immigration to Israel over the past year.27
And so ended the chapter of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Albania, thus laying the basis for cooperation in the fields of agriculture, economy, trade, culture, and science. Since then, the two countries have maintained full diplomatic ties.
* * *
* This article is an abridged chapter of a book in preparation on The Process of Renewal of Diplomatic Relations between Israel and the East European Countries. The article was translated from the Hebrew by Shalom Bronstein.
1. File on Albania’s Recognition of Israel, 2391/10 HZ, Israel State Archive (ISA).
4. For details about Hoxha, who ruled from 1949 to 1985, see HaEncyclopedia HaIvrit (the Hebrew Encyclopedia), Vol. 3, Supplement A (to Vols. 1-16) (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim), p. 857 (Hebrew).
5. The 1930 census counted 204 Jews in Albania. In 1939, refugees from Germany and Austria added to their number and additional refugees from Croatia and Serbia followed them. During the Nazi occupation, the Germans deported some four hundred Jews to the Bergen-Belsen death camp, about half of whom were still alive when the camp was liberated.
6. Albania File, 103.1 HZ, ISA.
14. Ibid. See also Eliezer Doron, B’tazpit U’vaimut: Miyomano shel Shagrir (Observing and Confronting: From the Diary of an Israeli Ambassador) (Jerusalem: Keter, 1978), pp. 136-37 (Hebrew).
15. Albania File, 103.1, HZ, ISA.
17. Albania renewed diplomatic relations with the United States on 15 March 1991. See Jerusalem Post, 14 March 1991, which also reports Albania’s intention to establish ties with the European Community.
18. Although confirmation that this was Albania’s attitude could not be found, it is unlikely that the diplomat would have used this rationale if there was no basis for it.
19. Reported on 14 March 1991 in Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Maariv, Yediot Aharonot, and Davar.
21. Albania File, 103.01 HZ, ISA.
22. Davar, 31 March 1991.
23. Davar, Yediot Aharonot, 31 March 1991.
24. Davar, 31 March 1991.
25. Albania File, 103.01 HZ, ISA.
27. Between 1990 and 1991, some three hundred Albanian Jews arrived in Israel. Very few remained in the country after 1991. Between 1948 and 1991, 356 Albanian Jews settled in Israel. See Jewish Communities in the World (Jerusalem: World Jewish Congress, 1996), p. 132.
* * *
DR. YOSEF GOVRIN joined Israel’s Foreign Ministry in 1953 and served as director of the East European Department and deputy director-general of the Ministry, ambassador to Romania, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna. Since 1996 he has been a Research Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of several books and many articles on international relations.