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Arab democracy protests could threaten Israel

A sign reading 'Welcome to Israel" is seen on the Syrian-Israeli cross point in Quneitra, the major city of the Golan Heights Keystone

The Swiss ambassador to Israel says the democratisation process sweeping through the Arab world could pose a threat to Israeli security.

Walter Haffner also tells that the agreement aimed at uniting the main Palestinian factions is a positive development.

The interview was conducted on the sidelines of the regional conference of Swiss ambassadors that took place in Tunis from May 1 to 3. What impact has the reconciliation pact signed between Fatah and Hamas had on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations?

Walter Haffner: One must first note that no peace talks have taken place over the past two years…

From a Swiss point of view, it is certainly positive for the short and mid term that the Palestinians are striving to agree on a unity government. If at some point a Palestinian state comes into being, it must be led by a united government that represents all Palestinians. One must now wait to see if the internal Palestinian reconciliation process continues and what results may come of it. Palestinian reconciliation will at first complicate the situation for Israel. Israel has not yet negotiated with Hamas.

W.H.: Israel believes it is unacceptable to negotiate with a Palestinian faction which questions Israel’s right to existence. It is an Israeli pre-condition to be accepted as a state before entering into talks. Hamas must accept this right to existence in order to become a negotiating partner of Israel. Israel has made it clear on many occasions that it will not negotiate with a group that fires rockets at its territory. Switzerland was one of the few countries to talk to Hamas.

W.H.: We are one of three states that do so openly. It is a poorly kept secret that other countries have done so too but without going public. Our position is that one should speak to all parties to a conflict if this conflict is ever to be resolved. With the construction of settlements in the occupied territories, Israel has created a state of affairs which cannot easily be reversed.

W.H.: Israel is aware that the construction of settlements is contrary to international law.  The settlements dispersed across the West Bank must be cleared, at the latest when a peace agreement is reached. The problem with the large settlements bordering Israel will likely need to be resolved through an exchange of land. What would the collapse of the Syrian government mean for Israel?

W.H.: That could have a great impact on Israel. Syria is considered one of Israel’s so-called favourite enemies. Bashar al-Assad is an enemy but he guarantees stability. If the Syrian regime were to collapse, that could well mean the weakening of the Syria-Hezbollah axis in Lebanon, but at the same time uncertainty for Israel that could have grave consequences. Since 1973, the border between Israel and Syria has been quiet. If chaos were to break out in Syria, the situation for Israel could quickly become incalculable and dangerous. According to this logic, Israel has no interest in seeing a democratic government in Syria?

W.H.: I think in the mid to long term, Israel certainly does have an interest in a democratic neighbour. But Israel has learned over the past 60 years that it must think about the short term. It asks itself, what will tomorrow bring? In the short term, a revolution in Syria could mean instability for Israel. Does the same apply to its neighbour, Egypt?

W.H.: Yes, and for Jordan too. According to a poll conducted after the fall of Mubarak, a majority of the population said they would rescind the peace treaty with Israel. A proposal to this effect would win a majority in a democratic vote. This would be a giant setback for Israel. In this respect the democratic process in Egypt poses certain dangers and risks. The peace deals with Egypt and Jordan have brought stability in the south and east, and have opened doors in the Arab world for the Jewish state. These are the only two peace accords that Israel has signed. Will they be dissolved?

W.H.: This is not relevant at the moment. And even if they were terminated, war will not automatically follow. But Israel could find itself facing a united Arab front for the first time in 30 years. You are an ambassador for a country that welcomes and promotes the democratisation process in the Arab world. Does this Swiss position put you in a difficult situation when dealing with the Israeli government?

W.H.: Israel understands Switzerland’s position and also welcomes – in the mid and long term – the democratisation of the Arab world. But the events could first result in instability and put in question the security of Israel, either directly or indirectly. For Israel, its own security is always in the foreground.

Switzerland has welcomed the reconciliation pact signed by the former bitter rivals, Fatah and Hamas.

The accord “should advance the process of democratisation and respect for human rights over the whole territory”, the Swiss foreign ministry said.

It added that reconciliation is a necessary pre-condition for the self-determination of Palestinians.

Fatah and Hamas have been disputing control of the Palestinian territories.

Fatah is the secular political movement founded in 1959 by Yasser Arafat. Until 2006 it was the main Palestinian organisation. The party, which controls the West Bank, is led by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). For Israel, this is the only reliable partner in the peace process.
Hamas is an Islamic-inspired movement founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Regarded as a terrorist organisation by many western governments, it refuses among other things to recognise the state of Israel. At the last elections (2006), found to be free and fair by observers, it won most of the seats in the PNA legislature. It then took control of the Gaza Strip.

(Translated from German by Dale Bechtel)

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