Ministers fume about Swedish story

New 'Aftonbladet' article defends report, blasts Israel, as efforts continue to reduce bilateral tensions.

Aftonbladet sweden organ trafficking 248 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Aftonbladet sweden organ trafficking 248
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Despite an avalanche of Israeli condemnations of Stockholm's refusal to condemn an article alleging the IDF killed Palestinians to harvest their organs, contacts were continuing behind the scenes on Sunday to prevent irreparable damage to Israeli-Swedish ties. Even though Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz intimated that Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt may not be welcome in Israel for meeting planned for early next month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said there were no plans whatsoever to scuttle the visit. Both Sweden and Israel, it was made clear, have an interest to putting this issue behind them as soon as possible, so that it would not completely overshadow Bildt's trip. A rupture in relations now would be particularly disruptive - both for Stockholm and for Jerusalem - since Sweden holds the rotating presidency of the EU. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his first public pronouncement on the article that appeared last week in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet, made clear that Israel was not looking for an apology from the Swedish government. "The Swedish government crossed a red line when it did not condemn the article," he said. "The request is not for an apology, but for a condemnation." History was replete with blood libels that have led to the murder of Jews, Netanyahu said. "These matters cannot be taken lightly," he said. "We are not asking from the Swedes anything that we did not ask of ourselves." Netanyahu reminded the ministers that in February, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed regret and sorrow for a satirical skit on Channel 10 that poked fun at the Christian belief that Jesus walked on water and Mary was a virgin. The skit had infuriated the Vatican. "I don't recall that Olmert's condemnation damaged press freedom in Israel," he said. Lieberman, meanwhile, said at a press briefing that what was so galling about the Swedish government's response was that it had upbraided its ambassador to Israel for swiftly denouncing the article. Had the government not done that, Lieberman said, Israel's reaction would likely not have been so harsh. He denounced the Swedes for hypocrisy. Lieberman said that while the Swedish government said it could not impinge on press freedom and condemn the article, it did exactly that during the 2005 upheaval over caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in the Danish press. At that time, he said, Sweden shut down an Internet site in the country that posted the caricatures, and the Swedish foreign minister wrote a letter of apology to the president of Yemen. Lieberman also took the Swedish government to task for its silence earlier this year when the city of Malmo decided to lock the public out of a Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel. Meanwhile, ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting expressed outrage at the Swedish government's stance, with Steinitz saying those who refused to condemn such libel "may not be welcome in the State of Israel." Joining in the chorus, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that he would act to prevent Aftonbladet reporters from receiving work permits in Israel, and Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said that Israel should take legal steps against the paper to combat the organ-snatching allegations. Meanwhile, Aftonbladet on Sunday published a follow-up article, defending the offending report written by freelance journalist Donald Bostrom. Sunday's article maintained that the organ-harvesting matter "should be investigated, either to stop the relentless Palestinian rumors, or, if the rumors prove to be true, stop the trade in body parts." Israel's envoy to Sweden, Benny Dagan, responded to a Swedish reporter on Sunday who asked why Israel did not investigate the claims. "Why don't we investigate why the Mossad and the Jews were behind the bombing of the twin towers?" he said. "Why won't we investigate why Jews are spreading AIDS in the Arab countries? Why won't we investigate why Jews killed Christian children and took their blood and organs to bake matzot on Pessah?" Aftonbladet's article on Sunday also called Swedish Ambassador in Israel Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier's condemnation of the article a "disgrace." Ã…sa Linder Borg, author of Sunday's article, headlined "Dare to examine Israel," opines that no one is "sympathetic to the idea that Israel should be able to steer American public discourse," and that "not many deeply sympathize with Binyamin Netanyahu's policies." Meanwhile, grassroots-level anger at the Swedes began to surface in Israel, with one online petition calling for a boycott of IKEA, a global home furnishing giant that was founded in Sweden and has a branch outside Netanya. Another nongovernmental reaction was published in the opinion section of Ynet, when a journalist under a pseudonym penned a story, complete with dateline, research and witness accounts in quotation marks, alleging that Sweden, in an effort to compete with salmon products from neighboring Norway, harvested the feet of innocent Norwegian fishermen to extract the secret ingredient that - according to the article - makes the Swedish salmon dish more palatable: the fungi growing on Norwegian fishermen's feet. At the end of the article, a one-line comment appears: "The writer is a phony investigative journalist and this report is as valueless and unfounded as the Swedish article published last week." Representatives of the Jewish community in Sweden, meanwhile, expressed concern Sunday about a diplomatic situation that they feel has gotten out of control. "The calls from the Israeli government to the Swedish government to distance itself from or to comment on the article, for me are difficult to believe and don't help the relations," Gunnar Hokmark, president of the Swedish-Israel Friendship Association and a member of the European Parliament, told The Jerusalem Post. "Making the article a conflict between the two governments, as I see Lieberman doing, to me is unwise. And I'm saying this as a strong friend of Israel," he added. Hokmark said it was against Sweden's concept of freedom of the press, as expressed in its constitution, for the government to denounce a newspaper. "I think everyone has a reason to be concerned about the content of this article and we should have a debate about Aftonbladet and their responsibility for publishing these sorts of rumors," he said. "But it [the Israeli reaction] has moved the focus in the debate from the article to the Israeli calls for the Swedish government to make moves that are not consistent with our constitution, and I'm not very happy about it." Jonah Newman contributed to this report.