One of the key tasks that Sweden’s new ambassador to Israel Magnus Hellgren and members of his staff have set for themselves is to dispel false impressions of Sweden’s attitude to Israel.
Hellgren, who was one of four new ambassadors who presented their credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on November 29, the 70th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 181 that paved the way to the establishment of a Jewish state, reminded Rivlin that Sweden had been a strong supporter of the two-state resolution.
He conceded that Sweden and Israel may have different interpretations of events in the region, but declared that nonetheless “Sweden is a good friend of Israel’s.”
Responding to a BDS inference by Rivlin, Hellgren was adamant that Sweden does not support boycotts of Israel. “We promote more trade with Israel, not less,” he said.
In addition to clarifying Sweden’s position, Hellgren and his staff want to strengthen dialogue between the two countries. “Even when you have differences, it is better to talk to each other than about each other,” he said. He also suggested that the media was to blame for misrepresenting Sweden’s policies.
Regardless of any disagreements that exist between the two countries, Rivlin expressed admiration for Sweden’s social welfare programs from which he said Israel could learn, and was also appreciative of Sweden’s stand against resurgent antisemitism.
Rivlin, who continues to vent his anger over the UNESCO resolution that denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, raised the issue in his individual conversations with the new envoys and said to Portugal’s Joao Bernardo Weinstein that Portugal should be well aware of the connection because some of Portugal’s most famous historic figures could trace their origins to Jerusalem.
“You know that everyone from Portugal came from Jerusalem,” he said.
“Most of us are descended from the people of the [Iberian] Peninsula,” he continued, adding that some of the greatest Jewish philosophers came from Portugal. He did commend Portugal for its willingness to restore citizenship to descendants of Jews who were expelled half a millennium ago, to which Weinstein replied that Portugal wants to correct a major historical error.
There are many areas in which there is strong cooperation between Israel and Portugal, not the least of which is combating cyber terrorism Cooperation will be increased following the visit to Israel next year by Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. Weinstein said that President de Sousa was greatly looking forward to his visit to Israel.
As for himself, Weinstein also said that he had very much wanted to come to the Jewish state. “It’s an inexplicable feeling to be here.”
Although it stands to reason that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have notified Rivlin of the faith affiliation of the Portuguese envoy, Rivlin did not relate to the matter until Weinstein gently commented that through his surname, he had a special connection with Jerusalem.
He later told The Jerusalem Post that his immediate family had migrated from Germany to Portugal in the 19th century, and that those members of the family who had remained in Germany had come to a very sad and tragic end.
Rivlin’s usual greeting to new envoys is “Welcome to Israel. Welcome to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel,” but in the case of Bernardo Greiver, the Ambassador of Uruguay, he said “Welcome home.” Greiver was the second of two ambassadors of the Mosaic persuasion to present credentials on Wednesday, and this was his second stint as his country’s ambassador to Israel.
That did not make him any less excited or nervous. When Rivlin started to speak of Uruguay’s role in United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) and in pushing for the passage of Resolution 181 at the United Nations General Assembly, Greiver said how pleased he had been to see it make front page headlines in The Jerusalem Post that morning.
Visibly filled with emotion, he switched from speaking English and continued the conversation in fluent Hebrew, which he learned as a schoolboy in Montevideo. His wife and two sons who accompanied him also speak fluent Hebrew. Rivlin told the boys that he was happy that they were back in Israel, to which they chorused “So are we.” One of them is studying at university in Israel and the other is doing civilian national service, or as he said in Hebrew “Sherut Leumi.”
Greiver mentioned that when Uruguay chaired the Mercosur South American Economic Bloc, it pushed for negotiations with Israel. Noting that Hanukka, the “Festival of Miracles,” was imminent, he voiced the hope that there would be more miracles and that Israel would finally know the miracle of peace.
In the guest book he wrote in Hebrew “Peace on Israel.”
Rivlin noted Uruguay’s ongoing involvement with Israel, and the fact that President Dr. Tabare Vasquez, an oncologist by profession, had been a visiting student at the Weizmann Institute, which he visited again when on an official visit to Israel in 2008. Vasquez also has strong ties to Uruguay’s Jewish community.
The fourth new envoy was Papal Nuncio Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, who brought warm regards from Pope Francis – whom Rivlin met at the Vatican in 2015 and to whom he extended an invitation via Girelli to visit Israel for the country’s 70th anniversary celebrations of independence.
Rivlin said that he was very happy to welcome Girelli to the city of Jerusalem “where it all began.” Rivlin underscored that Jerusalem is holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, and regretted the fact that Jerusalem “has become a political issue.”
Addressing the political issue, Rivlin said, “I would like to say to our Palestinian cousins that we are all the children of God.”
Praising the Pope’s peace-making efforts around the world, Rivlin commented that the Pope was the only person who could go to Myanmar without being criticized.
Though acknowledging that it was not quite his place to do so, Rivlin blessed both the Pope and the ambassador of the Holy See, and declared Israel’s willingness to cooperate with the Vatican in peace-making efforts in the region. He cited as an example the Jordan River project at the point where John the Baptist met Jesus, and said that if the area could be developed with the cooperation of Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians and the Vatican, millions of Christian pilgrims would be able to come visit the site.
On the issue of the conflict with the Palestinians, Rivlin told all the new ambassadors that Israel will not yield to political pressure because it leads nowhere. Confidence-building measures had to be put in place before any peace negotiations could be resumed, he said, emphasizing that the Palestinians must learn to accept the fact that the Jews have returned to their promised homeland, and the Jews must accept the fact that the Palestinians are here to stay.