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Israeli ambassador attacks Swiss foreign policy

Celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Switzerland-Israel Society in Zurich

(Keystone)

Israel's ambassador to Switzerland, Ilan Elgar, has criticised Swiss foreign policy in the Middle East and the strategy of active neutrality.

Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey said she was surprised by the criticism, which she indirectly rejected in her speech in Zurich on Sunday at the 50th anniversary of the Switzerland-Israel Society.

Speaking in an article in the Aargau Sonntag newspaper, the Israeli ambassador said Swiss interventions over the Iranian nuclear issue were "pointless".

For Israel, Iran is the most dangerous country in the Middle East and Switzerland should keep out of these tensions, said the Israeli diplomat.

Reacting to a recent United States intelligence report that played down the Iran nuclear threat, the Swiss foreign ministry last week stressed the importance of diplomacy to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Observers say that the Swiss diplomatic line is different to that of its European neighbours, many of whom – including France – favour tougher sanctions against Tehran.

Switzerland uses its good offices to represent US interests in Iran and is used as a go-between by the two sides. The US and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in 1980 after American embassy staff were taken hostage in Tehran.

Swiss role in Iran

The role the Swiss are taking in the Iran nuclear affair remains unclear.

Switzerland imposed sanctions against Iran earlier this year over the Middle East country's continued failure to halt uranium enrichment. This was in line with a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Calmy-Rey has also held informal discussions with Iran's former national security chief Ali Larijani on the nuclear stand-off.

Diplomats said there is a "Swiss plan", which calls for a simultaneous suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment programme and international sanctions. However, it has never been confirmed by the Swiss foreign ministry.

Washington has so far been critical of Swiss involvement in brokering a deal.

Active neutrality

In the newspaper article, Elgar added that the Swiss foreign ministry's interpretation of active diplomacy was also "sensitive".

"For me neutrality means a country doesn't take unilateral positions," declared the ambassador.

After hostilities between Israel and Lebanon-based Islamic organisation Hezbollah broke out on July 12, the Swiss foreign ministry was quick to take a firm line.

"The fact that Switzerland has accepted the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Hezbollah as negotiating partners has also seriously irritated Israel," said Elgar.

Both groups want to destroy Israel and do not accept the Palestinian authorities' agreements with the state of Israel, he added.

The Bern-based diplomat said that by taking a different approach to the United States or the European Union, Switzerland was "weakening the international community's position".

Swiss-Israeli relations

The Swiss president's spokesman, Jean-Philippe Jeannerat, said she had expressed her "astonishment" over the criticism during a meeting with the Israeli social affairs minister, Isaac Herzog, who was also in Zurich for the 50th anniversary of the Switzerland-Israel Society.

In her speech in Zurich, Calmy-Rey, who is also foreign minister, indirectly rejected the accusations.

"Switzerland above all provides a humanitarian contribution to the Middle East to improve the living conditions of Palestinians," she declared.

As guardian of the Geneva Conventions, she said it was Switzerland's duty to remind countries of the need to respect international humanitarian law.

"We raise our voice when this law is violated, even when that means criticising our friends."

Relations between Switzerland and Israel are "strong, dynamic and so robust that they can support occasional public criticism", she added.

Calmy-Rey praised the action of the Switzerland-Israel Society, which she described as "an important sign of understanding between both countries".

This presence is all the more important as anti-Semitism still prevails, even in Switzerland, where the Jewish community represents only 0.25 per cent of the population, she noted.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Switzerland-Israel Society is a non-religious and independent association that was founded on December 15, 1957, following the Suez crisis the year before.
The society aims to "deepen friendly links between Switzerland and Israel through closer cultural, political, economic and social ties".
There are an estimated 18,000 Jewish people in Switzerland or 0.25% of the Swiss population.

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