Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Switzerland v Israel : Swiss attack on Israeli policy escalates Cold War
This article of mine appears in The First Post.
In an attack which shocked Tel Aviv by the harshness of its tone, Switzerland has accused Israel of wantonly destroying Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem and near Ramallah in violation of the Geneva Convention's rules on military occupation.
It's arguably the strongest condemnation of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians to come from any western European country since Charles de Gaulle famously attacked the "oppression, repression and expulsions" of Palestinians by Israel over 40 years ago. And it's come from a country that's not exactly famous for making strong condemnations.
The statement last Thursday from the Swiss Foreign Ministry said that Switzerland - the guardian of the Geneva Convention - regards the "recent incidents", under which scores of Palestinian homes have been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, as "violations of international humanitarian law" and claimed there was "no military need to justify the destruction of these houses". In addition, the Swiss called east Jerusalem an "integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory" - a statement sure to inflame hard-line Zionists who regard the entire city as belonging to Israel.
The Swiss attack on Israeli actions might surprise some, but it is only the latest incident in a rising 'cold war' between the Alpine republic and the Jewish state. Earlier this year, Israel summoned Swiss Ambassador Walter Haffner to its Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem to protest against Switzerland's signing of a multi-billion dollar energy deal with Iran.
So incensed were Zionists when Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey wore a headscarf and was pictured smiling and joking with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, that the Anti-Defamation League placed a series of advertisements in various national newspapers - including Swiss ones - which claimed that Switzerland's energy deal with Iran made Switzerland the "world's newest sponsor of terrorism". Calmy-Rey reacted angrily to Israel's criticism, saying that Switzerland was "an independent country that has its own strategic interests to defend".
It's possible to trace the deterioration of Swiss-Israeli relations to 1998, when Israel was compelled to write a formal letter of apology to Switzerland after five Mossad agents were caught trying to install surveillance equipment in an apartment in Berne in order to bug a Swiss citizen whom Mossad believed was linked to Hezbollah.
In the intervening period Switzerland has become an increasingly vocal champion of the Palestinian cause. As the Middle East conflict escalated, the country even halted all arms sales and military co-operation with Israel for three years in 2002. Earlier this year, Switzerland was among the 30 countries who voted in support of the UN Human Rights Council resolution that condemned Israel for "grave violations of the human and humanitarian rights of the Palestinian civilians living in Gaza".
It wasn't always like this. The Swiss-Israeli war of words is ironic given the fact that the world's very first Zionist congress was held in Basle in 1897 - and that 15 of the first 22 Zionist Congresses were held in Switzerland.
The Swiss condemnation of Israel today may be dismissed by some as having little global importance, but there are good reasons why Israel ought to be concerned. As guarantor of the Geneva Convention, Switzerland has the power to call meetings of the treaty's signatories if it finds problems with its implementation - something which would be very embarrassing for Israel.
And while it's one thing for Israel to be condemned by countries with a poor human rights record such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia - it's quite another for it to be criticised by a country whose record is beyond reproach. The fact that Switzerland - the home of the Red Cross - has not been involved in a military conflict for 200 years, gives the country a moral authority that many others lack.
Switzerland's independent line on Middle East issues also shows the advantage of maintaining national sovereignty in an age where most countries in Europe have surrendered important decision making powers to the EU. While other countries in Europe have been cajoled, under US and British influence, to moderate their criticisms of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and to agree to swingeing sanctions on Iran - non-EU Switzerland is free to make its own decisions and to say what it thinks about Israeli actions.
It helps, too, that Switzerland is rich enough to follow its own path, without fear of retribution. On this issue, Israel has come up against a state which truly is beholden to nobody.