In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven explains his policies on Israel, and reaffirms his support for Holocaust commemoration, better U.S.-Europe relations and a revived Iran nuclear deal
GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Just weeks after Sweden hosted the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, Stefan Löfven, the country’s prime minister and the driving force behind the forum, is stepping down as head of the Social Democratic party – and the government. While the 64-year-old premier, whose tenure is coming to an end this week after more than seven years, has recently been praised internationally for his role in confronting antisemitism, his policies concerning a host of other issues, both foreign and domestic, have also attracted attention. Among these are his country's unique handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the way it is dealing with challenges posed by a looming refugee crisis in Europe, relations with Iran, and Sweden's recently improved ties with Israel. Talking to Haaretz during a party congress in Gothenburg, Löfven addresses these subjects and offers some initial insight into his political legacy.
It’s recently been announced that you are the recipient of the Aron Isaac Prize that's awarded by the Jewish community in Stockholm for your “efforts to ensure that the victims of the Holocaust are not forgotten and to counter antisemitism and racism in today’s society.” When and why did you decide to make these issues part of your job as prime minister?
“This is a deep conviction that I’ve held all my life, ever since I can remember. When I became prime minister, it was obvious to me that I would take part in Holocaust commemoration, and naturally I met more and more people, I heard more stories and I promised the survivors that I’d do all I could both as prime minister and as a fellow human being. For example, when (Holocaust survivor) Max Safir called me a few years ago and asked me to help found a Holocaust museum in Sweden – that felt like something I could do, so we started a dialogue with survivors and organization and we’re well on our way now (the museum will open next year). Then, when the 20-year anniversary of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust took place, we thought that since these problems still exist, we have to do more.”
Löfven is referring to the 2020 conference of an organization initiated by then-Prime Minister Göran Persson as an international partnership to fight antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance, education and research. 21 years later, Löfven created the Malmö forum to continue to address the same problems. “I started with a deep personal conviction,” he stresses, “and the prime ministerial role gave me the possibility to do a lot more”.
Despite the awards and ceremonies, Sweden’s Jewish community still has many unresolved problems. With possible changes in the country’s school system, will it still be possible to have a Jewish school in the country? Will circumcision for religious purposes stay legal? And for how long will hate crimes and bullying of Jewish children and teachers continue in Swedish schools? Has enough been done in these areas? Is there more than just rhetoric?
“It’s true, we do still have problems. That’s why, in the short run, we’re investing more in security. Yes, it will be possible to have Jewish schools in Sweden even if independent religious schools which receive public funding will be prohibited in the future. The Jewish minority is one of our national minorities, which means that its language, culture and schools are protected. [Five minorities are protected by law in Sweden: Jews, the Roma, the Sami people – Sweden’s indigenous inhabitants – Swedish Finns and the residents of the Torne Valley.]. I don’t see any danger for the right to conduct circumcisions since there’s no majority against it. Sure, there are still problems and that’s why the Malmö forum was all about commitments, not about speeches. It was about two kinds of commitments: first, never to forget, which is why different countries undertook to have various memorial events and memorial sites, and second, the fight against antisemitism, which is also about commitments. In our case, this means doing more in schools, investing more in research so that we have a better understanding of the forces behind antisemitism and so on. We want to spread this to other countries, organizations and companies (such as social media companies for example). Everyone can make commitments. Individual schools can commit, more companies can make commitments, sport organizations can make commitments. That’s the way to address these issues". More than 40 countries and more than 20 international organizations, civil society organizations and private sector giants such as Facebook and Googel participated in the Malmö Forum and made pledges to combat antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance.
Löfven has served as prime minister since October 2014. Though born in Stockholm, he grew up in northern Sweden with a foster family, since his biological father died before he was born and his biological mother was unable to raise him. His foster parents were working-class Swedes – the father a lumberjack and factory worker; the mother, a homemaker. After completing his high school and a couple of years of military service in the Swedish Air Force, he became a welder. As a metal worker, he became a trade unionist and worked his way up the ranks until 2005 when he became the head of IF Metall, one of Sweden’s largest and most powerful blue-collar unions. In January 2012, Löfven, who had been active as a young man in the Social Democratic youth league, was elected head of the party at a point when the Social Democrats were in the opposition and suffered a leadership crisis. Löfven became Sweden's Prime-Minister after the 2014 general elections and won a second term four years later, despite the fact that the Social Democrats had their worse showing in over 100 years in those elections. The fact that country's four center-right parties would not cooperate with the populist right-wing Sweden Democrats at the time created a situation in which Löfven was able to form a coalition with the Green Party, bolstered by a left-wing party and a couple of center-right parties. This coalition, still in power, has suffered and still suffers from week support in the parliament and the Social Democrats have had to make painful compromises in order to stay in power. Löfven has often been described as a political survivor and an extremely skillful negotiator who has managed to keep his party afloat despite the tough political landscape.
Last week, during the party gathering in Gothenburg, Löfven’s successor, Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, was elected. If all goes according to Löfven’s plan, Andersson will be chosen by the Swedish parliament to become prime minister until the 2022 elections. She'll be the first woman ever to hold the job. Her task now is to lead the Social Democratic party to victory. In her first speech as party leader, she chose to stress the core values of her electorate, away from the compromises made by her predecessor. “In the age of global crises, it is obvious to more and more people that the wind is blowing for us Social Democrats, for strong society, for equality,” she said, adding that after decades of privatization, market experiments, weakened worker’s rights and growing social gaps in the interest of private profits, it’s time for common solutions rather than market solutions. In another speech Andersson mentioned Löfven’s efforts to combat antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance, and vowed: “Stefan, we will all continue that work.” Löfven himself is confident that she will continue stepping in the path he laid. “This is part of our party’s ideology,” he says. “I’m convinced that my successor as party leader has no different understanding than I do (on these issues).”
When it comes to Sweden’s relations with Israel, the start of Löfven’s first term couldn’t have been worse. One of his government’s first steps was the recognition of a Palestinian state. The following year, 2015, in an interview on Swedish TV, then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström linked that year's jihadist terror attacks in Paris to the Palestinians' plight under Israel's occupation. That comment, and others like it, were viewed in Jerusalem as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli in Jerusalem, and led to the recall of ambassadors and freezing of bilateral relations. Indeed, for nearly three years, there were no meetings between the countries' official and Israel repeatedly rebuffed requests by Wallström and Löfven to make more efforts to improve ties. The situation improved slightly toward the end of 2017, but there were no one-on-one meetings between Löfven and Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and no high-level contacts between the countries’ foreign ministries. But all that changed last month when Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde visited Israel and met with her Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid. A few days earlier, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog made an online appearance at the Malmö forum.
Was recognizing a Palestinian state a mistake?