Switzerland has announced that it will support a call to upgrade the status of Palestine at the United Nations when the issue comes to the vote in the General Assembly on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter explained that the decision did not mean that Switzerland was taking sides in the Middle East conflict. Rather, the government hoped that it would provide a new impulse to get the peace process moving again.
The statement to be delivered by Switzerland’s UN representative will also stress that the new status will impose new obligations on the Palestinians.
The move to raise Palestine’s status from "observer" to "non-member observer state" has been strongly criticised by Israel.
If accepted, the new status would give the Palestinians more political weight. They would be able to join international treaties; most importantly, they could ask the International Criminal Court in the Hague to investigate war crimes in the conflict with Israel.
Burkhalter’s announcement on Wednesday had been widely predicted, provoking debate as to whether support for the Palestinian move clashes with the country’s neutrality.
Historian Georg Kreis, who for many years was the chairman of the Federal Commission against Racism, believes it does not. He told swissinfo.ch that the Swiss position would not endanger Switzerland’s credibility as an intermediary in the Middle East conflict, or as a neutral country in general.
"When it comes to the principles of international law, particularly obligations in regard to the direct or indirect occupation of foreign territories, you cannot abstain for reasons of political neutrality."
"In this case, this would damage not only the Palestinians, but also Switzerland itself,” he explained, adding that there should be no such thing as neutrality when it comes to humanitarian issues or human rights."
Political scientist Laurent Goetschel of Basel University agrees. He says if Switzerland had decided to abstain in the General Assembly note, this would have amounted to taking "a clear position" in favour of Israel.
Break with tradition, or continuity?
But this view is not shared by everyone.
"I was astonished at the government’s decision," said Corina Eichenberger, chairwoman of the Switzerland-Israel Association.
"Until now the Swiss government has always been of the opinion that the Palestinian state can only be recognised when a two-state solution has been agreed between the two sides. The government has now moved away from this position," she told swissinfo.ch.
Eichenberger sees the Swiss move as "an inappropriate position for a neutral country". She would prefer to see Switzerland abstain.
But her counterpart in the Switzerland-Palestine Association, Daniel Vischer, told swissinfo.ch that the Swiss vote in favour would be a logical continuation of its policy so far.
"There is no neutrality problem here. Just the opposite: neutrality means adopting positions that conform with international law. The recognition of Palestine has to do with international law and UN decisions. Anything but a ‘yes’ vote from Switzerland would be surprising."
Change of strategy?
Former foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey criticised Israel during its intervention in Lebanon in 2006 and in the war on Gaza in 2008-2009. She also tried to take a more active role in finding a settlement, launching the Geneva Initiative in 2003. (see link)
But her successor Didier Burkhalter, who took over at the beginning of the year, has taken a more cautious line, which has reduced tensions in Swiss relations with Israel.
Nevertheless, Kreis is not surprised that the government should come out in favour of upgrading the status of Palestine.
"There are differences in style, but it is not a U-turn in substance," he said.
Eichenberger sees it quite differently. For her it represents a change of strategy in Swiss Middle East policy.
"Until now Switzerland has always supported the Geneva Initiative. Should the UN General Assembly vote 'yes', this would invalidate the initiative."
Vischer denies that it is a U-turn.
"It is simply a continuation of Swiss policy up to now, which, incidentally, was not invented by Mrs Calmy-Rey, but had been Switzerland’s policy towards Palestine since the 1980s. And I’m not sure that Mr Burkhalter’s policy is so very different, as some people think."
A historic turning point
The Swiss position on the Middle East conflict has changed since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. For many years Bern had a clearly pro-Israel stance. As a small country it felt solidarity with another small country surrounded by hostile neighbours, and admired its military strength.
Pierre Aubert, Switzerland’s foreign minister from 1977 to 1987, had previously been active in the Switzerland-Israel Association. As chairman of the group he was instrumental in having Swiss contributions to Unesco reduced in 1975 after the organisation criticised Israel.
Switzerland’s policy later became more balanced. It campaigned for the rights of the Palestinians and a two-state solution, and condemned the construction of Israeli settlements in occupied territories. It even talks to Hamas, which it does not regard as a terrorist organisation.
But Kreis believes that the real change has been in the attitude of the Israeli government.
"After 1967 [the ‘Six Day War’ leading to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai and the Golan] its settlement policy became more direct and obvious. In the beginning, it was helped by the fact that it was seen as 'small' and ‘weak’ against Arab superiority."
"But now the balance is different, with Israel the superior power, believing it may do almost anything on the basis of the questionable argument of self-defence."
It is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic to find this neither good nor necessary, in Kreis’ opinion.
"Just the opposite: support for the current Israeli government damages Israel and disheartens the opposition within the country," he said.
Ahead of Wednesday's announcement, Israel’s ambassador in Bern, Yigal Caspi, said his country has called on "all friendly and like-minded countries, like Switzerland" to oppose the Palestine initiative in the UN. Only direct negotiations can lead to a solution of the conflict, Israel says.
Kreis did not see this as interference in Swiss affairs. "It is legitimate for the Israeli government to make demands, even unwarranted and inappropriate ones. After all, they don’t have to be met," he commented.
After the announcement, Caspi reiterated Israel's opposition to the move, describing it as "counter-productive", but he told the Swiss News Agency that it would have no effect on the "friendly relations" between the two countries.
"It is just a difference of opinion on one point," he said.
For his part, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ibrahim Kraishi, told the Swiss News Agency he was "delighted" with the decision. He said it was in line with Swiss support for a two-state solution.
Status of Palestine in the UN
The UN General Assembly recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people in 1974 and granted it observer status.
In 1988 the General Assembly acknowledged the proclamation of the State of Palestine by the Palestine National Council, and decided to use the name Palestine instead of PLO in the UN system.
In 1998 the Palestinians were given further rights, including the right to participate in the debate that opens the General Assembly session, and to co-sponsor resolutions on Middle East issues.
In 2011 Palestine was admitted to Unesco, but its application for full membership of the UN was turned down by the Security Council.
On November 28, 2012, the UN General Assembly is to vote on a resolution raising the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations from an observer to a nonmember observer state in a move they believe is an important step toward a two-state solution with Israel.
The date is the anniversary of the partition of Palestine in 1947 in the run-up to the establishment of Israel.
The status can be conferred by a majority in the General Assembly, the body which brings all the member countries together. The Security Council does not have to approve it.
Several western states have already announced that they will support the request, but the US, Canada and Germany have rejected it.
The new status would bring concrete benefits to the Palestinians, including access to UN institutions.
By Jean-Michel Berthoud, swissinfo.ch
(Adapted from German by Julia Slater)