GENEVA Over the past several years, Geneva has been re-asserting itself as a neutral mediation centre, either formal or informal, for conflicts such as Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and the Iranian nuclear issue. Back in 2003, it also hosted an Israeli-Palestinian peace effort known as the Geneva Initiative, which outlined possible venues for genuine reconciliation.
The Palestinian issue is now once again back on the front burner, but not with everyone’s agreement. The Geneva missions of the United States, Israel, Canada, Australia and Rwanda have refused to send representatives to the summit, which is being held this week in the building of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) just down the road from the Palais des Nations.
Following recent European parliamentary decisions, such as in France and Spain, to symbolically recognise Palestine as a sovereign state, Switzerland’s agreement to hold a special summit may be seen as a positive step for the Palestinian cause.
Many see the conference as an opportunity to sanction Palestine’s territorial rights, particularly given Israel’s military incursions, including indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the manner of these incursions severely infringed the Fourth Geneva Convention whose aim is to protect civilians in time of war. More recently, Israel has continued with its policy of illegal settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and despite restrained US criticism.
Switzerland’s role has been staunchly lambasted by both the United States and Israel. At the same time, Switzerland maintains that it has a mandate outlined in resolution 64/10 by the United Nations back in 2009, to precisely hold such a summit in consultation with other nations.
Swiss president Didier Burkhalter sees the special conference as a positive vehicle for debate by not only reinstating Switzerland’s position as promoter of the peace and guardian of the Geneva Conventions, but also as reiterating the summit’s purpose to protect populations at risk in the current conflict. As such, Bern’s objective is not to denigrate Israel, but rather to call for consensual respect for international humanitarian law.
Despite last April’s failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Switzerland regards the recent unity between Fatah and Hamas as a critical step towards instigating a new peace initiative with Israel. It has also called on the Palestinian government to officially recognise Israel’s right to exist. In the same vein, it has asked the Israeli government to allow the Palestinian people to establish a state based on the 1967 borders.
Israel, however, considers both the Fatah-Hamas unification and recent European votes as inhibiting factors jeopardizing the chances of finding common ground with the Palestinians.
For some analysts, to call the current Geneva summit politically sensitive would be tautological. While the broadly accepted aim is to find “a global, just and durable solution,” the initiative is also a tacit reminder of past failures for mediating a viable solution to this dragging conflict. However, with the tide slowly turning in Western Europe (Sweden is the only West European country to recognise the Palestinian State so far), some observers believe that it may be up to neutral countries such as Switzerland to break the trend by forging alternative pathways to peace. Although recognising Palestine remains a controversial topic, its progressive inclusion by UN members is seen as an indicator of change. So is Switzerland’s – and the UN’s – recent acceptance of the Palestinian Authority to join 14 international treaties and conventions to the Geneva conventions governing the rules of war and military occupations.