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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Sweden and Israel: A History of Tense Relations

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Hamas, Israel, Palestinians

The Swedish Social Democratic Party is not known for its sympathy toward Israel. Its current duo of leaders, however, Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén and Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, have gone overboard and are waging a systematic campaign against Israel.

The party won the September 2014 elections and returned to power after a short absence. Once his government had been formed, Prime Minister Löfvén’s first announcement concerned recognition of a Palestinian state. This was exceptional even in the hostile territory of the European Union, which still had not taken so extreme a policy against Israel and prompted a wave of recognitions of a Palestinian state by parliaments of important countries such as Britain, France, and others. Although the resolutions are nonbinding, Israel suffered political damage. Nevertheless, no regrets or second thoughts are evident in Sweden, and the attacks on Israel continue as if it is Enemy No. 1, and all of Sweden’s economic and social problems – which are numerous – are overshadowed by the “threat” Israel poses to this peaceful, pleasant country.

Margot Wallström and Mahmoud Abbas
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the opening of the first “State of Palestine” embassy in Western Europe, Stockholm, February 2015.  (AP Photo)

Although the recognition of a Palestinian state was a continuation of the Swedish left’s hostile policy toward Israel, it was also aimed at the country’s large Muslim minority – comprising about 700,000 people – with the aim of attracting Muslim voters to the party in the next elections. Because the Social Democratic Party had garnered just 31.2 percent of the votes and only managed to form a minority government with the Greens Party – a radical party that is antagonistic to Israel – those elections were supposed to be held in a number of months. During my diplomatic tenure in Sweden in the early 2000s, all my efforts to conduct a dialogue with that party fell on deaf ears. Eventually, though, the early elections were canceled on the assumption that this government will last its full four-year term. This, however, has not stopped it from continuing to lash out at Israel, and the two countries’ relations have turned into a cycle of altercations.

In her response to the Paris terror attacks in November, the foreign minister managed to link the Islamic State with the Palestinian problem. She described the Islamic State terrorists as frustrated youngsters similar to the Palestinian terrorists who go out to murder Jews.

A few days later on December 4, 2015 in a session of the Swedish parliament on the issue of the current wave of terror, which in Israel has involved stabbings and car rammings, the foreign minister said she condemned those acts but added that the response should not be similar. Extrajudicial executions – a disproportion in the number of attackers killed —  meant that more attackers died than victims of attacks. In other words, Margot Wallström would be pleased if the attacked Jews were to be killed in greater numbers and if each person attacked, be it a child, woman, elderly person, or even a soldier or a policeman, were to struggle with the crazed, knife-wielding attacker in such a way as to bring him to trial. One wonders whether, if Ms. Wallström, God forbid, were to be attacked by a terrorist with a knife, she would say to him, “Mr. Terrorist, sir, please stop, I understand that you are in despair, I will call a policeman, he will arrest you and you will get a fair trial.”

During the session the foreign minister displayed total ignorance about happenings in Israel. Was she indeed unaware of, or did she intentionally ignore, the Palestinians’ rejection of negotiations with Israel and the severe anti-Israeli incitement practiced by the Palestinian Authority, with none other than Mahmoud Abbas at the helm. Did she not know of Hamas’ calls for Israel’s destruction and all the social network articles and instructional videos on how to stab Jews? She claimed, however, that Abbas had told her he was interested in peace, and she believed him. Prime Minister Löfvén, who spoke out in her defense, expounded on the notion that stabbing with knives does not constitute terror!

These censures have, of course, prompted Israeli diplomatic responses. The recognition of a Palestinian state led Israel to recall its ambassador for a short period. The various statements brought a sharp response from Prime Minister Netanyahu. But it is hard to counter a systematic animosity stemming from the Social Democratic Party’s longstanding ideology of hatred.

Sweden Has a Long History of anti-Israel Policies

In a retrospective view it is clear that the Löfvén-Wallström duo’s behavior comes out of a long tradition. The party they currently represent has a rich history of hectoring Israel. The change for the worse in Sweden’s policy toward Israel began when with Olof Palme became the party’s leader at the end of the 1960s. Ideologically speaking, he transferred Sweden from the Western, pro-American camp to what was then called the “peace camp” and the Non-Aligned Movement, which worked to undercut U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. He openly supported North Vietnam and worsened his country’s relations with the United States. He also drew away from Israel and consolidated a pro-Arab policy. That policy was evidenced in anti-Israeli stances at the United Nations and in European Union institutions, and in denunciations of Israel without taking Arab aggression and unceasing terror attacks into account. Sweden was, indeed, the first European country to invite Arafat for an official visit. I well recall the harsh rebukes that were directed at Israel during the second Intifada. As the Palestinians blew up buses and restaurants, killing hundreds of Israelis, the Swedish government chose to castigate Israel and even gave a human rights prize to Hanan Ashrawi who is known for her uncompromising hostility toward Israel.

There is, then, nothing new in the stance of Löfvén-Wallström. Today, however, Sweden is more and more under Muslim influence. It appears to have reached a breaking point where it can no longer absorb the hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants who, in light of the generous welcome Sweden has accorded such migrants over the past 40 years, are knocking on its door. Prime Minister Löfvén recently asserted that Sweden was being naïve about the risk of an attack on its soil, and that there are Swedish citizens who sympathize with the Islamic State murderers. Therefore, he said, security mechanisms would be strengthened and laws would be changed to enable monitoring and surveillance of citizens; border inspections would be tightened as well. Moreover, if necessary the bridge over the Öresund Strait, which connects Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden and is seen as a symbol of freedom of movement in Europe, would be closed. In addition, it appears that the budgets for immigrant absorption have run out, and the government may raise taxes in the coming year.

Has Sweden’s new policy toward the migrants, compelled by circumstances, led the Löfvén-Wallström duo to intensify the enmity toward Israel as compensation to the Muslim world? It should also be noted that Sweden is a candidate for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2017-2018 and needs the support of the Islamic states. In this context there was recently an interesting run-in between Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

Sweden Collides with Saudi Arabia

Last March, Margot Wallström “dared” to depart from her customary indifference toward the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and criticized a harsh sentence meted out to Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, along with the Saudi legal system in general, which is based on sharia law. Saudi Arabia reacted by canceling the Swedish minister’s scheduled speech to the Arab League on the human rights issue – not, it can be assumed, to the Arab states’ regret. The Saudis also recalled their ambassador from Stockholm, stopped granting visas to Swedish businesspeople, and proclaimed that Wallström’s words constituted interference in their domestic affairs and contravened international law. The United Arab Emirates likewise withdrew its ambassador from Sweden. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation joined in denouncing Wallström’s words. For her part, stricken with fear lest Sweden’s trade relations with the Islamic states be harmed, the foreign minister recruited the King of Sweden – who has no connection with the King of Saudi Arabia – to issue a political declaration that he was “concerned” by the dispute with Saudi Arabia, even though, according to Sweden’s constitution, he is forbidden to make such declarations. Wallström herself hurried to the parliament and in a long oration praised Islam and its contribution to the development of humanity and Saudi Arabia as an important country in the international community.    

Herein lays the problem: whereas the Arabs are numerous, wield political and economic power, and are prepared to make threats at any moment, tiny Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. It appears that herein, as well, lays Sweden’s “enlightened” calculations, of which it should not be proud.