Economist and Telegraph amplify debunked ‘confused Serbian president’ narrative

An Economist article (“Serbia and Kosovo awkwardly embrace Israel”, Sept. 12) on recent announcements by Serbia and Kosovo that they’ll both place their embassies in Jerusalem, implicitly recognising the city as Israel’s capital, included the following:

The deal may not be all it seems at first glance. The opening of embassies in Jerusalem is not due to take place before mid-2021. By then Mr Trump may have had to vacate the White House. And before the ink had dried on the accord, some Serbian sources said their country would not, after all, move its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognised Kosovo (which Israel has been reluctant to do, lest it encourage the Palestinians). The president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic (pictured), looked somewhat bemused when Mr Trump announced that Serbia would be making the move.

A Telegraph article on the same subject (“Serbia and Kosovo’s Jerusalem embassy plan open rift between EU and Israel”, Sept. 11) by Jerusalem correspondent James Rothwell was even more explicit in suggesting that Trump had blindsided the Serbian President with his announcement:

 …a video of the moment the accord was announced by President Trump in the White House showed Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, looking confused – as if he had only just realised he was making the commitment on embassies.

Here’s the video of the “bemused” Serbian president they’re referring to:

However, two days before the Economist article was published, and a day prior to the Telegraph’s piece, Lahav Harkov, the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, debunked the initial interpretation of the clip:

Many interpreted [the Serbian president’s] reaction to mean that Vučić didn’t know he was supposed to be moving the embassy to Jerusalem and had been blindsided by Trump.

Vučić’s reaction was actually to the July date Trump mentioned for the embassy opening, which seemed far off, considering that Serbia plans to open its trade office this month.

Sources close to Vučić pointed out on Thursday that the Serbian president had already announced at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March that his country would open a trade office in Jerusalem, and the intention had been to take a first step toward opening an embassy in Israel’s capital.

The idea that [Vučić] wasn’t aware doesn’t conform to the facts,” a source said.

In fact, a team led by Serbia Chamber of Commerce President Marko Čadež – the target of Vučić’s sideways glance in the video – was in Israel this week to open that trade office, meeting with real estate agents in Jerusalem on Thursday to find the right location.

As far as we can tell, neither the Economist nor Telegraph based their claims on any actual reporting.  Instead, they seemed to rely solely on the Serbian president’s momentary facial expression, other unsubstantiated media reports, and speculation on social media.

We’ve reached out editors at the Economist and Telegraph regarding their extremely misleading claims.

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