Sweden Hopes Its First Top-level Visit to Israel in 21 Years Will Thaw Ties

Stockholm is stepping up its efforts against anti-Semitism and hate crimes, as the foreign minister tries to mend relations with Israel. Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-sweden-hopes-its-first-top-level-visit-to-israel-in-21-years-will-thaw-ties-1.8468492

STOCKHOLM – Among the dozens of world leaders who landed in Israel last week for the International Holocaust Forum, the presence of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was particularly notable. It had been 21 years since a Swedish Prime Minister had visited, and a series of diplomatic incidents in recent years only worsened the atmosphere.

The incidents included the recognition of a Palestinian state by Löfven’s government and then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s linking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to terror attacks in Paris. For nearly three years after Wallström’s comments in 2015, there were no official meetings between the two countries, with Israel repeatedly rebuffing requests by Wallström and Löfven to improve ties.

But at the end of 2017, two senior Swedish officials came to Israel: then-Parliament Speaker Urban Ahlin and then-Commerce Minister Ann Linde, who is now foreign minister. Also, Israel named a new ambassador to Stockholm, Ilan Ben-Dov, who a Swedish Foreign Ministry source says brought “a new atmosphere and approach” to bilateral relations.

Like Göran Persson, who served as Swedish prime minister from 1996 to 2006 and was considered a friend of Israel, Löfven is striving to turn Sweden into a world leader in Holocaust commemoration and the battle against anti-Semitism. At the same time, Stockholm continues to address the Palestinian issue, support the Palestinian Authority and promote the two-state solution when most of the world seems to have lost interest.

“The government stands behind the recognition of Palestine,” Linde told Haaretz last week. “The recognition was done in support of a negotiated two-state solution; one State of Israel and one State of Palestine,” she said, adding that support for the two-state solution is solid in the EU, which, like Sweden, supports the Palestinians and donates to them.

“I am very clear about my sincere ambition to further deepen and broaden the relationship with Israel,” she added. “I will continue to strive for this. We must be able to maintain an international law-based foreign policy and at the same time have a very good and constructive relationship with Israel.”
Arson and other attacks

Linde is also unequivocal about the fight against anti-Semitism. “Sweden remains deeply committed to the international fight against anti-Semitism,” she said. Asked about anti-Semitic remarks, including in her Social Democratic Party, she said: “Criticism against the Israeli government’s actions can be motivated, as against any other state, but it is never acceptable to use anti-Semitic stereotypes or to question Israel’s right to exist.”

“It could be bullying on social media and in some cases, physical attacks, even if it’s not very common,” said Aron Verständig, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. Firebombs have been thrown at the Gothenburg synagogue and the Malmo cemetery. There have also been arson attacks, swastika graffiti, violent demonstrations by neo-Nazis and other harassment of Jews.

These include, amongst other incidents, the Jewish cultural center in the city of Umeå closing down after receiving neo-Nazi threats, media attention which was turned towards a Jewish doctor who suffered discrimination and abuse at Stockholm’s Karolinska University Hospital and many reports of threats, harassment and cursing at Jewish teenagers, younger children and teachers in Sweden’s schools.

But there has also been greater interest in the Holocaust and the recognition that its memory must be preserved. Over the past year numerous events in the country have focused on Holocaust commemoration and the fight against anti-Semitism. Notably, the Living History Forum, a Swedish government authority, teaches against racism and anti-Semitism and an organization named “Jewish Culture in Sweden” preserves the legacy of the Holocaust by arranging various cultural events.

The Swedish government is determined to show that it takes the issue seriously. Linde spoke about a number of steps like efforts by the Swedish police to increase funding and staffing against hate crimes, and investments in protecting Jewish institutions and other sites likely to be targets. The government has also initiated legislation against racist groups and is improving enforcement and the prosecution of hate crimes.

Efforts also include visits by legislators and school students to Auschwitz, while the Swedish education minister is cooperating with the Yad Vashem memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The Swedes are also considering building their own Holocaust museum.

For now the highlight is the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism, which is scheduled for October. Löfven has invited researchers, world leaders and other representatives from some 50 countries to plan steps to help preserve the memory of the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism. Also, last week Löfven announced that Sweden is adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Aron Verständig, president of Sweden’s Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, would like to see an even larger investment in Jewish life in Sweden but he says cooperation with the government is good. “lately it’s doing good things like arranging the international conference in Malmö and creating a new Holocaust museum”, he said.

Still, the Israeli government doesn’t seem very impressed, and ties between the countries remain cool. During his visit to Jerusalem last week Löfven didn’t meet a single Israeli official, though, granted, he wasn’t the only leader who didn’t hold meetings outside the Holocaust forum.

Foreign Minister Linde, for one, isn’t discouraged. “There is no reason why we could not have a fully normal relationship given the long-standing friendly relations between our two countries and plenty of common interests such as innovation, gender equality and the important struggle against anti-Semitism,” she said. “The prime minister’s visit to Jerusalem this week proves how important the work on combating anti-Semitism is for the Swedish government. The fact that we have different views on certain other issues should not prevent dialogue, but rather makes dialogue even more important.

Why did Sweden recognize Palestine?

Published in i 24 News: http://www.i24news.tv/en/opinion/49502-141102-analysis

Last week most people who are interested in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict struggled to understand what the Swedish government was trying to achieve by recognizing a Palestinian state. The recognition seemed to come out of the blue, with no international support and little chance of making a difference. Independent states need recognized borders, a currency, an infrastructure and an army. The Palestinians have none of these and no Swedish statement can change that. Middle East politics, after all, are not a new-age seminar – you can't just wish states into existence.

On the other hand, while peace negotiations are at a standstill and the sides are still licking their wounds after another bloody war in Gaza, Sweden's new government claims it's time to try a new approach. Margot Wallström, Sweden's FM, said at a press conference last week that Sweden isn't taking the Palestinian side, rather it's taking the side of the peace process. "This will make the parties less unequal", she said, "and we're still hopeful that they will return to the negotiating table". Basing the move on historical precedents (like Kosovo) and on the fact that more than 130 countries have already recognized Palestine she added: "we are supporting moderate Palestinian forces and contributing to hope at a time when tensions are increasing and no peace talks are taking place".

Israel, as expected, sees this move as biased and hostile and now there is a serious crisis in the relationship between the two countries. But should Israelis really see Sweden's recognition of a Palestinian state in such a negative light? Does it really have to drive a wedge between the two countries?

First and foremost it must be said that Israel's biggest fear, the fear of other countries following Sweden, wasn't realized. Though Wallström claimed Sweden is "proud to lead the way" for other countries, this didn't happen. So far even the Swedish parliament has shown a strong opposition to the move and the Prime Ministers of the other Nordic countries aren't eager to follow. In a summit in Stockholm last week they all announced that although they're committed to a two state solution they're not ready to recognize a Palestinian state just yet.

"We believe there should be an agreement on a two state solution before we recognize a Palestinian state" said Norway's PM, and Denmark and Finland's PMs agreed entirely. So policy makers in Jerusalem don't need to worry too much about a domino effect yet. The ambassador in Stockholm was recalled in order to show other countries that the price for recognizing Palestine at this point is high, but it's unlikely that either Berlin or Paris will go where even Copenhagen and Oslo won't.

Then there's the money trail. When Swedish-Israeli relations come up in the press it's usually about an Israeli scientist coming to Stockholm to receive a Nobel Prize, a hate crime in Malmö or a Swedish activist arrested in the West Bank. These stories attract lots of traffic on news websites so they're popular subjects for public debate. But there's a deeper and less discussed side to the relationship between the two countries.

During the last few years Israeli and Swedish researchers, business-people and entrepreneurs have been cooperating more than ever. Sweden and Israel share many attributes that make joint ventures attractive to both sides. They have a similar sized population, their economies depend on exports and they're amongst world's 20 leading countries in research and development per capita. Research institutes and hospitals in the two countries are now strategic partners while CEOs from both countries' leading companies, industrial leaders and cyber and weapons developers travel regularly on the Tel-Aviv – Stockholm line. One Swedish admirer of the way Israel invests in innovation wrote an article a few months ago in the Swedish press about his "inspiration from methods used in Israel". The writer's name is Stefan Löfven, and he's Sweden's new PM. His approach is not exactly the sign of an anti-Israel BDS activist.

Will the close relationship in these areas change as a result of the latest crisis? Probably not. Anyone digging deeper than the amusing metaphor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a piece of IKEA furniture will find a surprising stability in Sweden-Israel relations. "We can continue with trade, innovation, technology and sciences" said Israel's ambassador to Sweden in a TV interview last Thursday. Sweden's FM couldn’t agree more. "We are hopeful that our excellent cooperation will continue in all areas including trade and economic cooperation". She said in a Stockholm press conference.

So, all in all, it seems that although the Swedish statement sparked a diplomatic crisis, its actual effect is limited. It didn't do much for the Palestinians, it didn't lead the way for other countries to recognizing Palestine – and the Swedes don’t even intend to open an embassy in Ramallah. The Swedish recognition certainly didn't persuade Israel's government to stop building settlements and it may not even have a lasting effect on bilateral relations between the two countries.

So why did they do it? The Swedish government isn't naïve. Nor, as many Israelis suggested, is it influenced by Sweden's increasing Muslim population. That's not how Swedish politics work. The truth is that the Swedish statement is just as much for domestic consumption as it is for world diplomacy and it should be seen in the right historical perspective. The Social-Democratic party, which returned to power after eight years in opposition, is proud of its foreign policy history which it claims aims not only to serve Swedish interests but also to make the world a better place. In a press conference with foreign correspondents FM Wallström spoke of needing "courage to be a government in these difficult times" which indicates that recognizing Palestine is actually a party statement meaning: We're back in town and we're still serious about human rights, freedom and peace on earth.

But it's not all about ideals. As many analysts suggested, the new government leans on a very narrow parliamentary coalition and recognizing Palestine can be seen as an attempt by the Social-Democrats to please their left wing partners while in other areas they're busy negotiating with the right. Sweden has far bigger policy concerns than the Middle-East and a quick, bold move on the Palestinian front gives the new government political leverage on more important issues such as defense spending, healthcare, jobs and education.

This may all seem like a rather cynical analysis of the issue, but what it actually means is that the bad blood between Israel and Sweden is the result of a specific political environment which won't last forever.

Israeli disapproval aside, there's something to be said about Sweden's ethical and practical approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its will to engage in a region that most other countries have given up on is admirable and it isn't simply empty rhetoric. FM Wallström announced last Thursday that Sweden is to considerably increase foreign-aid for so called "state building" from just under 70 million USD to over 200 million USD in five years, this in addition to Sweden's substantial humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

With all this good will, if Sweden acts carefully and does not alienate Israel, it could be exactly what the region needs – an impartial and unaligned international partner, which sends humanitarian assistance when needed and engages in international funding and assurances for a lasting, stable and fair peace in the future. Although it doesn’t look like it now, Sweden, with its activism, its economic stability and strong international status could in fact be part of the solution.

It's interesting to point out that one of the most important breakthroughs in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict took place in another Scandinavian capital, Oslo, twenty years ago. If Sweden and Israel don't fall into a spiral of aggressive statements, boycotts and confrontations, who knows – perhaps the next stage in the peace process could be the Stockholm Accord.