April 20, 2009 / 9:07 AM / 10 years ago

Israel recalls Switzerland envoy over racism parley

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland on Monday in protest at a U.N. conference on racism in Geneva attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Israeli officials also voiced anger at a meeting that Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz held on Sunday with Ahmadinejad, who has questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust happened and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

Monday’s World Conference on Racism, which has been boycotted by a slew of Western powers concerned it could become a platform of anti-Israeli rhetoric, coincides with Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Jewish state.

“Six million of our people were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Not everyone has learned the lesson, unfortunately,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet in broadcast remarks.

“While we commemorate them, a conference purporting to be against racism will convene in Switzerland. The guest of honor is a racist, a Holocaust-denier who makes no secret of his intention of wiping Israel off the face of the earth.”

Netanyahu’s office later said in a statement that he and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman decided to recall Ambassador Ilan Elgar from Berne “for consultations and in protest at the conference in Geneva.”

Bilateral ties were already strained last year when Israel complained to Switzerland about its purchase of natural gas from Iran. Israeli officials argued that the deal harmed U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

In an interview with Israel Radio, senior Lieberman aide Aviv Shir-On described Monday’s protest measure as dramatic.

But he noted that it fell short of permanently withdrawing the Israeli envoy and voiced some understanding for Switzerland’s position as a neutral country playing host to an international parley.

“These are the reasons the Swiss gave for the meeting” with Ahmadinejad, said Shir-On, himself a former ambassador to Berne.

“They also claimed that they would make clear to Ahmadinejad everything that needs to be made clear to him as a Holocaust-denier and a harmer of human rights, but I think that for the State of Israel, for the international community, this is not enough — hence our measure.”

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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