Swiss officials defend Ahmadinejad meeting

"Switzerland is neutral, not part of any alliance," Merz says after Israel recalls ambassador.

ahmadinejad Merz Durban 2 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad Merz Durban 2 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Swiss officials defended on Monday the meeting between their President Hans-Rudolf Merz and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when the latter arrived to attend the Durban Review Conference in Geneva. "Switzerland is neutral and not part of any alliance," Merz said in a radio interview, adding that it was part of his country's tradition to offer mediation services. Israel issued a sharp protest after the meeting. The move included recalling Ambassador to Switzerland Ilan Elgar to Jerusalem for consultations, and summoning the Swiss Embassy's deputy head of mission, Monika Schmutz-Kirgoez, for an urgent meeting on Monday with the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for Western Europe, Rafi Barak, who conveyed Israel's anger. Schmutz-Kirgoez said Sunday's meeting took place because of long-standing ties between Switzerland and Iran, but that Merz had used it "to express to [Ahmadinejad] that his Holocaust denial and threats toward Israel were unacceptable." "We have had diplomatic relations with this country for the past 29 years [since the Islamic Revolution]. We even represent US interests there," Schmutz-Kirgoez told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "I want to underline that the meeting took place on the margins of an international gathering and that the Iranian president was the one who requested it. It would have been harsh to deny the meeting after the country's head of state asked for it," she said. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Monday saying "a meeting by the president of a democratic country with a known Holocaust denier who also calls for the destruction of Israel is inconsistent with the values that Switzerland represents and that should be upheld. Israel cannot ignore the fact that the conference being attended by the known Holocaust denier is taking place on the very same day [Monday evening] that the Jewish people commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day." In March 2008, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey visited Iran to sign a massive gas deal with the Islamic republic. Pictures of that visit were broadcast across the globe, as Calmy-Rey, clad in an Islamic head scarf, sat next to Ahmadinejad for the official signing of the deal. At the time, on the same day that he presented his credentials to President Shimon Peres, Swiss Ambassador Walter Haffner was summoned by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to protest the Teheran visit. Another spat between Israeli and Swiss diplomats occurred in 2007, when Calmy-Rey proposed holding a conference on "perceptions of the Holocaust" in Geneva to which Ahmadinejad would be invited. The idea was rejected by the Swiss government. According to Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for public diplomacy Aviv Shir-On, who was once ambassador to Switzerland, the Merz-Ahmadinejad meeting was more troubling than the Calmy-Rey visit to Teheran "because it's the second time. While Israel understands the consistent Swiss policy of neutrality, we think a country that respects values such as human rights, minority rights and freedom of speech shouldn't meet with Ahmadinejad, if for no other reason than to recognize that Ahmadinejad himself is the exact opposite of those values. He calls for the destruction of other countries while pursuing nuclear arms, he persecutes minorities, he persecutes women, he is the opposite of the values Switzerland stands for." Meanwhile, both sides were careful to note the basically friendly relations between the two countries. "Switzerland is a country friendly to Israel, even if we are not ready to accept any and all actions by our friends. I don't think we'll forget [the Ahmadinejad-Merz meeting], but do I think that outside of this meeting there are interests between the two countries that are very valuable - economic interests, cultural interests," Shir-On said. "Israel is telling us that it cannot understand and cannot agree with the meeting," Schmutz-Kirgoez told the Post shortly after leaving the Foreign Ministry on Monday. "That's okay among friends."