After the foreign ministers of Israel and Sweden spoke for the first time in seven years this week, diplomats in Stockholm tell Haaretz what’s prompted the relaunching of relations with the new government in Jerusalem
STOCKHOLM – In what could be labeled a new start for bilateral relations between the two countries, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted Monday that he had spoken to his Swedish counterpart Ann Linde, calling it the first conversation in seven years between the respective foreign ministers. According to Lapid, the conversation “symbolizes the relaunching of relations at this level.” He wrote that he appreciated Linde’s statement regarding her country’s “strong and solid commitment to the security of Israel,” and mentioned that in the course of the conversation, Linde also recognized Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Lapid added that they discussed Israel’s participation at next month’s Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, and that he is looking forward to “increased cooperation with Sweden on bilateral and multilateral issues.”
Robert Rydberg, Sweden’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, says the timing of the conversation is connected to both sides realizing that the time has come to move forward in a positive direction. “We have strong common interests – there are many issues and aspects that join Sweden and Israel, and we need to cooperate,” he says. “This doesn’t in any way prevent us from having an open discussion about issues we might have different positions on.” Asked whether the move has anything to do with the recently formed government in Jerusalem, Rydberg responds that “sometimes new people in office can help move beyond tensions of the past. This hasn’t been an issue of people or personalities. Nevertheless, people have the opportunity to try to resolve problems, and I think that both our ministers saw that this was an opportunity.”
Outlining what the foreign ministers discussed, Rydberg says there was also a personal element to the conversation. “They talked about bilateral cooperation and cooperation between the European Union and Israel; they discussed the Middle East, including the Palestinian issue; the upcoming Malmö conference and the struggle against antisemitism. Our foreign minister spoke about her long history and contacts with Israel, and her many Israeli friends. Minister Lapid mentioned – and I must say this was quite emotional – the fact that [the Swedish special envoy in Budapest during World War II] Raoul Wallenberg saved the life of his father [Tommy Lapid]. So that’s a very special connection from his point of view. “Minister Linde mentioned her commitment to the two-state solution and she mentioned Israel being the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” he adds. “She also spoke about issues in which Sweden continues to criticize Israeli policy, including the continued construction of settlements” in the occupied West Bank.
Sweden has been a vocal Western supporter for the formation of a Palestinian state, even though the peace process has been dormant for years, and the Swedish deputy foreign minister stresses his country’s continued commitment to a two-state solution. “We very much hope that one day we will see two peaceful states, Israel and Palestine, living together beside each other in peace and security. That’s our dream and our hope,” he says. While Rydberg says no concrete high-level meetings between the countries’ foreign or prime ministers are planned at this stage, he is looking forward to physical meetings ultimately taking place between the leaders.
Highs and lows
Historically, Israel had excellent relations in its early years with Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. These relations were built on the countries’ left-wing movements that were in power at the time, as well as the connections between their respective professional unions and cooperatives. Good relations were in both sides’ interests in the 1950s and ’60s. Although Sweden had maintained its policy of neutrality during World War II, there were also contradictions within its wartime actions: it supplied Nazi Germany with iron ore for its military, yet also rescued many Jewish refugees. As a result, it was keen to demonstrate its commitment to the newly founded Jewish state. Israel, meanwhile, was looking for allies, especially unaligned allies, during the first years of the Cold War.
Over time, various political developments, both foreign and domestic, caused relations to grow colder. Diplomatic relations reached their nadir in the last decade after a newly formed Swedish government – Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s first – recognized the Palestinian state in 2014. The following year, in an interview on Swedish TV, then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström linked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to that year’s jihadist terror attacks in Paris. That comment, and others, were seen as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli in Jerusalem, and led to ambassadors briefly being recalled and relations being frozen between the countries. For nearly three years, there were no official meetings between the countries and Israel repeatedly rebuffed requests by Wallström and Löfven to improve ties.
Relations warmed slightly toward the end of 2017, when two senior Swedish officials came to Israel: then-Parliament Speaker Urban Ahlin and Linde, who was serving as commerce minister at the time. When Löfven visited Israel during the International Holocaust Forum at the start of 2020, it was the first time a Swedish prime minister had made an official visit to Jerusalem since Göran Persson 21 years earlier. However, there were no one-on-one meetings between Löfven and Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and no high-level conversations between the countries’ foreign ministers. That all changed Monday with the Lapid-Linde phone call.
Several factors could be driving the renewal of relations. The new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid, may be eager to show that it is mending damaged diplomatic relations from the Netanyahu era. And in Sweden, Löfven has announced that he won’t be seeking reelection next year, and his government – widely perceived as one of Sweden’s weakest in modern times – could do with an international achievement. It’s holding the Malmö forum on Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism in a few weeks, and a formal Israeli embrace of the forum and Sweden’s potential 2022 presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance could be one such achievement.
In Stockholm, meanwhile, the new Israeli ambassador, Ziv Nevo Kulman, is said to be making a positive impression on Swedish officials. Nevo Kulman, whose previous role was head of cultural diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, released a video on social media in which he talked about the importance of “cultural, scientific and educational cooperation” between Sweden and Israel – as well as mentioning being a member of the Israeli ABBA fan club as a teenager. “I’m happy about the opening of a new page in Israel-Sweden relations,” Nevo Kulman tells Haaretz. “This will allow us to focus on a long list of issues and promote the relations between the two countries.”
Rydberg agrees that, ultimately, the two countries have much in common. “We’re two democratic, economically successful, relatively small countries that dedicate much of their budgets to innovation and research, and share values of individual freedom, gender equality and equal rights irrespective of sexual identity, and many other issues,” he says. “I believe that in the economic, cultural and scientific area, we can do much more together. At the same time, we should, of course, develop our dialogue on political affairs – both related to the Middle East and the situation in Europe and the international scene.”