Iran on the agenda as Liberman visits Bern

Jewish community leader knocks Swiss capital’s position on sanctions.

Liberman BS 311 (photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
Liberman BS 311
(photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
BERLIN – Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman met with his Swiss counterpart in Bern on Tuesday – the first visit of Israel’s top diplomat to Switzerland’s capital since 2003 – and discussed a range of Mideast policy matters, including economic cooperation with the Alpine country.
Switzerland’s foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, spoke with Liberman at the Maison de Watteville in Bern’s Old City.
“Burkhalter reiterated Switzerland’s belief that a just and lasting peace can only be established through the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state living side by side with the State of Israel within secure and recognized borders,” the Swiss Foreign Ministry said.
At the meeting, the two ministers addressed the latest developments in the Arab Spring, as well as the regime’s crackdown in Syria and the Iranian nuclear threat.
Before Liberman’s visit to Bern, the general-secretary of Switzerland’s Jewish community, Jonathan Kreutner, criticized the Swiss position on Iranian economic sanctions.
“We regret the attitude of Switzerland, which once again stands in contrast to the policies of other Western states,” Kreutner told The Jerusalem Post via email.
“Especially at a time in which Western states are seeking to oppose the Iranian nuclear threat through intensified economic sanctions, we find Switzerland’s actions worrisome. We expect Switzerland to join the [European Union’s] approach,” Kreutner said.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, and has long maintained a policy of neutrality in foreign relations.
The Swiss government announced last week that it would not implement the full EU sanctions against Iran. The measures – intended to convince Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program – include penalizing the Central Bank of Iran and halting oil and gas trade with Tehran.
In response to Bern’s position, Iranian state media outlet Fars News Agency headlined a story on Tuesday, “Tehran Welcomes Switzerland’s Opposition to Anti-Iran Sanctions.”
According to Fars, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast said, “We believe this decision [by Switzerland] affects our bilateral ties and we hope that other states in Europe and the West abandon their wrong decisions and return to a correct approach that will be effective for their national interests.”
Bern’s pro-Iranian trade policies prompted Israel to summon the Swiss ambassador in 2008. Burkhalter’s predecessor, Micheline Calmy-Rey, flew to Iran to sign a gas deal valued at 18 billion-22b. euros between the Swiss EGL energy company and the National Iranian Gas Export Company.
In an unusual move, the Israeli Embassy withheld criticism of Switzerland’s pro-Iran position – raising speculation that the two countries were engaged in delicate negotiations on the matter.
Israel’s embassy in Bern has not shied away from commenting on previous controversies such as Swiss meetings with Hamas representatives and Swiss-Iran energy and financial relations.
Business ties between Israel and Switzerland were also on the agenda in Bern.
According to the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Liberman and Burkhalter addressed economic, scientific and cultural relations.
The two nations implemented a free-trade agreement in 1993. Israel is Switzerland’s third-largest export market in the Middle East after the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Trade between the two countries reached 1.4b. Swiss francs (approximately NIS 5.6b.) in 2011, an increase of 6.6 percent from the previous year.
Israel and Switzerland conduct many cultural and scientific exchanges, and the foreign ministers ministers agreed on the need to strengthen scientific cooperation. Both countries have universities that collaborate closely with European research efforts.
During the meeting, a number of marchers demonstrated against Liberman’s visit to Bern.
An estimated 100 protesters from the Swiss-Palestinian Society attended the march, according to the Swiss Jewish weekly magazine Tachles. “You are not welcome in our land,” Green party federal deputy Daniel Vischer said. Swiss media outlets reported that the protesters targeted Liberman in particular because he lives in a West Bank settlement, Tekoa.
According to the SDA wire service, the Swiss-Israel society praised Burkhalter for meeting with Liberman. It is very important to maintain normal bilateral relations with Israel, Vreni Müller-Hemmi, the society’s president, said.