Former Swiss ambassador reflects on four years in Israel

Orthodox Jews facing Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall. Keystone

The former Swiss ambassador to Israel, Pierre Monod, has left life in the Middle East behind him, after four turbulent years. During his tenure Swiss-Israeli relations were severely tested by controversy over Switzerland's wartime past.

This content was published on July 16, 2000 - 10:03

Having just returned to Switzerland, Monod is taking stock of his four years in Tel Aviv, which began in June 1996.

Following his debriefing with the foreign ministry, the 59-year-old career diplomat and his Israeli wife have been reminiscing about their "very happy stay, after having been very well received by the Israeli people".

Shortly after Monod settled into his new job, Swiss banks set up a multi-million fund in 1997 to help needy victims of the Holocaust, mainly in Eastern Europe and Israel. This also came at a time when a committee headed by the former chief of the United States Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, was investigating dormant bank accounts in Switzerland believed to be containing the money of victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

"Relations between Switzerland and Israel were traditionally excellent. But at the beginning of my tour they were overcast. The whole debate surrounding Switzerland's role during the genocide committed against the Jewish people formed a large part of my job, with questioning letters from Israeli citizens landing on my desk, " Monod told Swissinfo, "But now almost four years later the clouds which briefly overshadowed our relations with Tel Aviv have been lifted".

Indeed, the French-speaking Swiss from canton Vaud has won the respect of some of his Israeli critics, notably from Avraham Burg, the president of the Jewish agency who was said to have taken his hat off to Monod's achievements.

Monod said, "I set myself the task of getting the Swiss message across to the Israeli population. I had to explain what exactly Switzerland was doing, what positive measures were being taken at home to deal with the whole chapter".

In addition to the Volcker-Committee, the Swiss government set up a commission headed by the historian Jean-François Bergier, to reappraise Switzerland's behaviour during the Second World War. The Commission has yet to issue a final report, though interim reports were critical of the wartime government.

But Monod is pleased that such steps were taken. He said, "After all the soul searching we did at home, I am proud to say that Switzerland can serve as a role model for other countries who have not solved everything."

However, he was also keen to point out that the ongoing peace process in Middle East, centring on Israel and the Palestinians signing a peace accord, was a large chunk of his duties in Tel Aviv.

"We have taken some concrete steps to help the process. Our 1995 mandate set out in Montreux is for Switzerland to be the shepherd for the human dimension, that means to safeguard human rights in the region and promote a better inter-cultural understanding between the different groups, " the former ambassador said.

Switzerland has ploughed several million francs a year into aid projects for the Palestinians via the Swiss Development Corporation since 1994. In addition, a Swiss business delegation is expected to travel to Israel in November to boost economic links with the Holy Land.

But in terms of policy, Monod represented Switzerland's traditional views in as much as "the state of Israel has a right to exist with recognised and secure borders" and that at the same time the "Palestinian people must be allowed to determine their own future".

Since returning to Switzerland recently, Monod has kept abreast of the latest development's in the peace process, with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, holding talks with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"I am optimistic about what the two sides are doing now. Where there is a will, there is always a way," Monod said.

Pierre Monod will be taking up his new job as head of Switzerland's mission in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in August. He will be accredited to three Caribbean and five South American countries.

by Greg Morsbach

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