Foreign minister reckons Middle East talks possible

Didier Burkhalter made a visit to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem Keystone

There is a ‘window of opportunity’ for Israel and the Palestinians to get back to the negotiating table, said Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter after meeting leaders from both sides this week.

This content was published on May 3, 2013 and agencies

Speaking in Jerusalem on Friday, Burkhalter said the reactivation of the peace process was of ‘strategic interest’ for Switzerland.

“Swiss foreign policy aims to ensure that peace is established in regions close to Europe,” he added, pointing out that the Middle East is suffering from instability, notably because of the civil war in Syria and religious conflicts.

Burkhalter also took note of the Arab League’s decision to sweeten its decade-old proposal offering comprehensive peace with Israel. “It seems quite similar to the Geneva Initiative Switzerland backed a few years ago,” he said. 

The original 2002 Arab peace initiative offered Israel peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world in exchange for a “complete withdrawal” from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, all seized by Israel in 1967, for their future state.

This time around, the proposal includes the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Burkhalter revealed that he met Israel’s minister in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni, shortly before she left for Washington on Wednesday. Livni was to discuss the Arab League proposal with the American Secretary of State, John Kerry.

Potential referendum

On Thursday, the foreign minister had met the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who asked Switzerland for its help in organising a referendum on a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

"If we reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I'd like to bring it to a referendum," Netanyahu said at the start of their meeting.

"Come to Switzerland and we will advise you,” Burkhalter responded.

Israel passed a bill in 2010 governing peace negotiations which would require approval by two-thirds of parliament or, failing that, a majority of voters in a referendum if the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem is to be ceded in any deal. The country has never held a referendum before.

According to the Swiss foreign ministry, the discussions between Burkhalter and Netanyahu primarily focused on deepening bilateral relations between Switzerland and Israel, the situation in the region, and Swiss contributions in support of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Burkhalter also met the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in Ramallah on Thursday. The foreign ministry said their discussions focused on bilateral relations and the peace process, without providing further details.

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