First Phone Call in Seven Years: What's Behind Sweden's New Approach to Israel

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

Published in Haaretz:

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.”

Anne Linde
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde Credit: REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

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.”

Why did Sweden recognize Palestine?

Published in i 24 News:

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.