Swiss stand by Middle East approach

Israeli workers remove trees along a tense border region with Lebanon Keystone

After a recent skirmish between Israel and Lebanon, the region has found a relative calm. But open discussions between all parties remains a priority for the Swiss.

This content was published on August 12, 2010 - 16:18

Swiss diplomacy in the Middle East, although modest, is not without its critics who argue the neutral country is too hostile toward Israel and too complacent toward others, like Hamas in the Palestinian Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

On August 3, two Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli officer were killed in what was the most serious skirmish since Israel’s invasion of the country in 2006. A Lebanese journalist was also killed.

Israeli soldiers were attempting to prune a tree blocking their view into a nearby village. The Lebanese claimed the tree was on their side of the UN-designated demarcation line between the two countries, and fired what they described as “warning shots”.

However, the UN said the tree was clearly on the Israeli side.

"Switzerland is well aware of the enormous political difficulties that must be overcome to achieve a just and lasting peace in this region,” the Swiss foreign ministry wrote in response to questions submitted by following the clash.

“Switzerland does not intend to play the leading role in this endeavour, but it is its duty to use traditional instruments of foreign policy to advance the cause of peace. Indeed, the conflict in the Middle East also has political, economic and social consequences for our country."

Dangers of the status quo

A report released last week by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank focused on preventing and resolving armed conflicts, adds grist to the mill of Swiss diplomacy by showing first the growing threats posed by the region’s apparent status quo.

"Since 2006, the rules of the game have changed. Whether Israel or Hezbollah, each has worked to strengthen their military capabilities," one of the authors of the report, Sahar Atrash, an ICG analyst in Lebanon, told

"For both parties, this was the only way to deter their adversaries. What our report shows is that the logic of deterrence is in itself a potential source of conflict.

“The balance of power may fall at any moment because one of the parties may think they can break this balance in their favour."

Technically at war

This is a view confirmed by recent tensions. Israel and Lebanon are also still technically at war, separated by a demarcation line and not an internationally recognised border.

Moreover, since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, alliances have grown more complex.

"Today, we are dealing with a regional approach to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah,” Atrash said. “The Shiite movement is no longer alone, but intertwined in a very strong strategic alliance with Palestinian Hamas, Syria and Iran.”

According to the Lebanese researcher and the ICG report, an armed conflict between Israel and Lebanon presents a real risk of spreading throughout the region. The last war involving the Israeli army and those of other countries in the region dates back to the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

"United States adversaries now feel in a position of strength with this alliance, which gives them additional leverage," Atrash noted.

The impact of the "axis of evil"

A diplomatic approach developed in particular by the US under former President George W. Bush is now called into question.

"Our report shows that the policy pursued by the United States and the West in general produced effects opposite to those intended,” Atrash said. “They have actually strengthened their opponents.”

For years Swiss diplomats have defended an inclusive approach, advocating dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah, for example. But it’s not clear what impact this Swiss peace diplomacy has had on the ground.

In October 2008, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey publicly defended this approach in a speech entitled, "Dialogue: The anti-conflict weapon,” which brought her a barrage of criticism.

But today, the facts seem to justify the approach advocated by the Swiss minister.

In his famous speech in Cairo in June 2009, US President Barak Obama - a central player in the Middle East - broke with the policies of his predecessor by reaching out to the Muslim world and some its players whom few wanted to deal with up until then. Even then putting this new approach into action is proving to be highly complicated, as shown by the situation in Afghanistan.

Viewed from Lebanon, this new diplomacy is nevertheless urgent, Atrash concludes.

"We are convinced that the problems are so interconnected, that the resolution of problems in Lebanon can be done only by working to find a solution between Syria and Israel, and to the Palestinian question as a whole, not to mention the Iranian nuclear issue, a fundamental problem.”

Frédéric Burnand in Geneva, (Translated from French by Tim Neville)

Switzerland in the Middle East

Inter-Lebanese dialogue: In the wake of meetings held in Switzerland in 2007, the foreign ministry, at the request of Lebanon, says it is willing to create a space for discussion between all Lebanese actors on the political and institutional development of the country.

Inter-Palestinian reconciliation: Switzerland maintains contacts with all parties to promote an inter-Palestinian agreement.

Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Switzerland continues to support the Geneva Initiative by informing the Israeli and Palestinian civil societies.

Jerusalem: The foreign ministry, at the request of local partners, also initiated a debate on the crucial issue of Jerusalem with civil-society actors involved.

Gaza: The Swiss have worked since 2007 to lift the blockade of Gaza while taking into full account the question of Israeli security. This year, the ministry developed a model with experts to monitor the movement of goods between Gaza and the outside world—a project still under consultation.

Dialogue with political Islam: Switzerland has been approached by various actors in the Muslim world, Europe and the United States to create spaces for dialogue between the West and some politically active Islamic movements.

(Source: Written responses to swissinfo questions submitted to the foreign ministry)

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