A sense of relief permeated the corridors of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem yesterday and Monday, as the U.N. Conference Against Racism, also known as Durban II, convened in Geneva, Switzerland.
The looming conference had troubled Israel for the past two years due to the turn of events at the first conference, Durban I, which took place in South Africa in August 2001.
The 2001 conference turned into a theater of the absurd. Although it was billed as a venue to condemn racism, it turned into an assault against Israel and ignored the suffering the Jewish people have endured along with the Jewish state’s right to defend itself.
This time, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials were prepared. They held talks with representatives of the various embassies and formed a staff at the U.N. in New York. Students who volunteered to demonstrate were welcomed and Jewish organizations from across the world sent their activists to Geneva.
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The Israeli Embassy in Bern, Switzerland’s capital, was reinforced with additional Israeli representatives, and Israel swamped the foreign press with its spokesmen.
Israel had learned its lesson – and yesterday, this paid off.
“For the Foreign Ministry, this was one of the most intensive and most successful weeks,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yossi Levy said. “We were fully engaged with preventing a rerun of the festival of horrors that was Durban I. We can chalk up an unequivocal success: The moral front of Durban II collapsed with a boom.”
The Israelis refused to play by the rules and made it known “that a red line had been crossed.”
The individual who contributed most to Israel’s success was none other than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Ahmadinejad delivered a hate-filled speech and the European Union countries that had not boycotted the conference until then did so in the course of his speech.
“If the conference was aimed at combating racism and the oppression of minorities and to support human rights, inviting Ahmadinejad was counterproductive,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aviv Shir-On. “If he had not arrived and delivered a hate-filled speech, it could have been far more difficult. We were afraid he would come and deliver some Boy Scout’s address, and then we would have had a hard time explaining all our drama.”
Jordan’s Delegate Walks Out As Other Arab Nations Applaud Ahmadinejad
The Jordanian representative boycotted Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, walking out mid-way through it. However, the representatives of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority remained seated in the hall throughout the entire duration of the speech and a majority of the Arab countries’ representatives gave him a resounding applause.
Background On The Break With Switzerland
Tension has been mounting for many years between Israel and Switzerland.
The history of Swiss-Jewish relations during World War II has never been forgotten. During that time period, at least 65,000 Jews who sought refuge from murder at the hands of the Nazis in democratic Switzerland were sent back by the Swiss to the death camps.
By contrast, Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain received 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled from the Nazis with open arms.
As recently as December 2003, the Swiss government caused a major diplomatic crisis with Israel when the Swiss Foreign Ministry paid more than $6 million to an Israeli left-wing group to hold the “Geneva Initiative” conference with Palestinian terrorist organizations.
This week, however, some feel Swiss-Israeli relations hit a low point after the meeting Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz held with Mr. Ahmadinejad that included a warm reception, an official dinner and a high-profile handshake.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded by recalling Israeli’s ambassador, Ilan Alger, for consultations in response. Mr. Alger will meet with Mr. Lieberman for consultations and may return to Switzerland within the coming days.
Meanwhile, Israeli Deputy Foreign Ministry Director General Rafi Barak summoned the charge d’affaires of the Swiss diplomatic mission to Israel, Monika Schmutz, for a harsh reprimand.
Senior sources in the Israeli Foreign Ministry have said the president of Switzerland sent a clear signal to Iran and the Middle East: Switzerland stands by Iran and at its president’s side, supports its policy and encourages Iran to continue its preaching of anti-Semitism and support for terror.
Israeli officials also criticized U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for deciding to meet with the Iranian president as well as with the Norwegian foreign minister, who remained in the conference hall after all other European delegates of lower rank decided to leave. The Norwegian delegation actually applauded the Iranian president, and the Swiss representative also remained seated.
“The only hall in which it should be permissible and even desirable to take a seat in front of Mr. Ahmadinejad is the central courtroom in the International Court for Crimes against Humanity,” said Mr. Levy said.
Political sources added: “We share a sense of shame and disappointment in the wake of the intolerable conduct by Switzerland, the U.N. secretary-general and the Norwegian foreign minister.”
At the Holocaust Remembrance Day Gathering on Monday night, President Shimon Peres added flame to the Swiss fire, saying: “There should be a limit even to Swiss neutrality. There is a line one should not be allowed to cross. The entire world must know that Iran is a nation where people are hanged in the streets for no reason; it is a center of world terrorism and bloodshed.”
Switzerland, however, rejected Israel’s criticism.
Mr. Merz defended himself, telling Israeli radio: “Switzerland serves as a neutral party in this necessary dialogue and provides the good service which is part of the nation’s tradition.”
In an official statement, The Swiss Foreign Ministry stressed Mr. Merz voiced criticism in the course of his meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad regarding the human-rights situation in Iran and condemned his calls for Israel’s destruction.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org