Some three weeks ago a delegation from the Sweden Democrats made what they had considered to be a historic visit to Israel. No longer would those in the Israeli government have to ask themselves what Sweden’s second largest party thought about Israel. Meeting with the media in the Knesset, MEP Charlie Weimers and MP Richard Jomshof spelled it out; We are friends of Israel and the Jewish people.
Still, as several media outlets have pointed out; there were no official meetings with the government, nor with any members of the Knesset. The Sweden Democrats remain on the Foreign Ministry’s blacklist, which apart from the Sweden Democrats includes parties such as the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, Alternative for Germany, as well as smaller fringe parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and the Golden Dawn in Greece. Keeping marginalized phenomena such as the Golden Dawn and Jobbik at arm’s length is hardly controversial and has few practical consequences simply because their leaders have no interest in mingling with Israeli diplomats.
But what about the growing number of right-wing populist parties who are currently included in various government constellations across Europe? This excludes the National Front, the Freedom Party and Alternative for Germany but not the Sweden Democrats which plays a crucial role in maintaining a parliamentary majority for the Center-Right government in Sweden.
The Sweden Democrats are not unique. Their roots can be traced back to the Swedish Neo-Nazi movement of the 1980s, although the party has since distanced itself from its past by excluding anyone who have expressed antidemocratic views.
In Spain, the Popular Party, the former political home of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, made a clear U-turn in relation to Israel in the 1990s. From having been one of the worst enemies of the Jewish state, Prime Minister José Maria Aznar transformed the party into a trusted friend.
The same can be said of the neo-Fascist parties in Italy. Once on the Israeli blacklist, current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was recently warmly received in Jerusalem. Like Aznar before her, she has made it her goal to transform her party, the Brothers of Italy, into a solid friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Among Italian Jews there are still those who have their doubts about her sincerity.
THIS DEBATE is nothing new. During a visit to Israel by then Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini in 2007, many from the Jewish community in Italy warned then-president Shimon Peres from meeting with him. His party, the National Alliance, had clear Fascist roots. Peres was not convinced. He met with Fini arguing that as Jews we don’t have the luxury of turning away anyone who want to become our friend.
In the European Parliament both the Sweden Democrats and the Italian Brothers of Italy are today part of the Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) which was the ideological home of the British Conservatives before they left the EU. Today, it is the Polish, Italian and Czech government parties which are the dominant voices of this, the fifth largest voting block in the European Parliament. Rumors have it that after next year’s European Parliament elections they may merge with the Center-Right European People’s Party (EPP), in order to further strengthen the position of the Center-Right in the EU.
In a first ever European Parliament ranking on attitudes towards Israel based on voting records, the ECR group came out as the most Israel friendly of all party groups, slightly ahead of the Identity and Democracy group (I & D) which, not surprisingly, also includes several parties which are currently on Israel’s blacklist. The largest voting block, the European People’s Party, came in third.
However, the further Left one gets in the parliament, the more anti-Israel are their voting records. The Spanish government coalition party Podemos scoring 0%, meaning that they voted against Israel on each of the 71 voting instances which were recorded between 2019 and 2022.
The results do not come as a surprise for anyone who have followed EU politics for some time. Israel’s best supporters in Europe are currently on the political Right. The time period that is covered in the vote ranking, from 2019 to 2022, includes the two years when Israel was led by a Center-Left government. The results can therefore not be dismissed as simply criticism of the current right-wing government.
Israel has more support from conservatives in Europe
EVEN WITH liberal Lapid at the helm, Israel has more support from national conservatives in Europe than from the progressive Left. If this development continues Israel may soon be faced with a situation where there are mainly two categories of parties in Europe; those that Israel refuses to talk with and those who refuse to talk with Israel, and even if they do, will vote consistently against the interest of the Jewish state.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has a delicate task to navigate in this increasingly polarized political landscape. Laissez-faire is hardly the answer. There needs to be clear guidelines as to who are credible political partners for Israel but these criteria will have to be clearly spelled out. For example, will a party with a problematic past be disqualified from meeting with Foreign Ministry officials forever even if their current track record indicates that they have since changed course?
Still, it is important to note that it is indeed possible to be overtly pro-Israel while at the same time be anti-Jewish. The 71 voting instances do not cover religious freedom issues such as kosher slaughter or circumcision simply because these issues are not regulated by EU law. On both accounts, the Sweden Democrats are on the record for wanting to ban circumcision and stop the import of kosher meat. (Kosher slaughter was banned in Sweden already in 1938).
Is this the reason for the blacklisting? If so, this needs to be clearly spelled out and applied equally to all parties which have chosen a similar line. The only government in Europe which has come close to banning circumcision is Iceland. However, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir later withdrew her proposal after her socialist colleague, then-secretary-general of the Council of Europe Torbjörn Jagland made a personal appeal to explain how this ban would be incompatible with their progressive values.
What can we learn from this? By engaging in open and frank dialogue among friends we have a better chance of getting our message across. Like Peres, we need to be more pragmatic than dogmatic. Jews already have too many enemies and do not need to make any new ones. Even when people we distrust approach us in good faith we should not slam the door but rather meet and listen before we make up our mind.
The writer is founding director of the European Coalition for Israel.