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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lashed out against Sweden on Thursday night for failing to condemn the article in the mass circulation Aftonbladet alleging that IDF soldiers killed Palestinians to harvest their organs, saying Stockholm's refusal to take a stand reminded him of Swedish behavior during World War II.
"It is a shame that the Swedish Foreign Ministry does not get involved when speaking about blood libels against Jews, something that is reminiscent of Sweden's position during World War II when it also did not intervene," Lieberman said in a sharply worded statement.
Not only did the Swedish government refuse to condemn the article, as Israel had hoped and expected, but it also removed a condemnation of the article from the Swedish Embassy's Web site.
Lieberman issued a statement saying that he would pass on to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt a harsh protest of his ministry's retraction of the envoy's statement. He also said that Israel was considering revoking press privileges for the newspaper, and in any event would no longer cooperate with it.
It was a "pity" that after the Swedish envoy did the "right thing" and condemned the article, the Swedish Foreign Ministry distanced itself from her, rather than backing her up, Lieberman said.
The Swedish government's refusal to condemn the article will "stain" Israeli-Swedish ties, senior diplomatic officials said on Thursday.
"This was a local initiative," Anders Joerle, a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm, said of the condemnation issued by Swedish Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier.
"She felt strong local pressure that she has chosen to reply to, and that is why she made this statement. The government doesn't review articles," Joerle said.
Bonnier, in a sharply worded statement posted on the embassy's Web site, had said the article was "as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens. We share the dismay expressed by Israeli government representatives, media and the Israeli public. This embassy cannot but clearly distance itself from it."
According to the statement, "Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are freedoms which carry a certain responsibility. It falls on the editor-in-chief of any given newspaper."
Bonnier's statement sparked intense criticism in Sweden, with the Green Party spokesman Per Gahrton saying she should be recalled and taught "the basics of Swedish freedom of speech," and the Swedish media questioning why a government-appointed official criticized an article in a newspaper based in a country where there is press freedom.
The editor of the paper where the article appeared, Jan Helin, also lashed out at the envoy, calling her statement denouncing the article an infringement on freedom of the press.
"Have you woken up in Iran?" Helin wrote. "No, it is Sweden's Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier in Tel Aviv, who attacks the Swedish freedom of press and freedom of expression."
The editor, in a signed editorial, backed up the article and continued to call Israel to task. "It's deeply unpleasant and sad to see such a strong propaganda machine using centuries-old anti-Semitic images in an apparent attempt to get an obviously topical issue off the table," he wrote.
The Foreign Ministry's spokesman for the Israeli press, Yossi Levy, said that Israel was "astounded and concerned" at the continued hesitation of the Swedish government to condemn an article "seeping with anti-Semitism."
"Just as the paper has the right of freedom of the press, so too does the Swedish government have the right to clearly express in a determined manner its position against this anti-Semitic manipulation that is being used as a tool to demonize Israel," Levy said.
Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Benny Dagan, is scheduled to meet on Friday in Stockholm with Sweden's deputy foreign minister.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said that while Israel hoped the Swedes would issue a statement, they doubted this would happen.
As a result, they said, the next time that the Swedes protested to Israel about any alleged human rights violation, or when they wanted Israeli involvement in the diplomatic process, this would be in the background. "This will be the elephant in the room, and the elephant will stay there because they don't want to show it the door," one official said.
The Swedish influence and relevance here will be weakened, he said, adding that this came at a time when Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday informed Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt that he expected his government to denounce "the scandalous report."
Barak stressed that the claims made in the article were not legitimate, but rather "a despicable libel, which is unacceptable also in a democratic atmosphere of freedom of speech."
He asked the defense establishment's legal adviser to look into filing a libel suit against Donald Bostroem, the journalist who wrote the report.
Jonah Newman, Bloomberg and AP contributed to this report.â€¢