Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde landed in Israel on Sunday, in the first official visit to Israel on that level in 10 years. Her Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, stated following their meeting that a new page has been turned in Swedish-Israeli relations. “In recent years, disagreements have caused us to move apart. Today, we are changing this,” Lapid added.
Relations between Israel and Sweden took a nosedive after Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s Center-Left minority government took office in 2014, when Sweden – a small and peaceful Scandinavian country that has not taken direct part in any military conflicts since the end of the Napoleonic Wars – became the first member state of the European Union to officially recognize a Palestinian state, notwithstanding that some Eastern European countries had done so during the Cold War. Following a series of public disagreements with Israel, former Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström became the only foreign minister within the EU not welcome in Israel in her official diplomatic capacity.
The recognition, which in Stockholm’s eyes aimed to further the peace process, was met by widespread condemnation in Jerusalem, which was eager to deter other countries from following suit. Isaac Bachman, Israel’s ambassador in Stockholm, was temporarily recalled for consultations, while then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman derisively warned that “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.”
The move was consistent with Sweden’s historic approach to Middle East diplomacy. Swedish officials came to play a leading role in efforts to partition Mandatory Palestine when Emil Sandström, former member of the Swedish Supreme Court, was appointed chairman of the UN Special Committee on Palestine in 1947.
Sweden’s de jure recognition of Israel was postponed until 1950 following the Stern Group’s 1948 assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden – the first UN mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict – to prevent his efforts to modify the Palestine partition plan. Soon, however, memories of the murder faded, and Sweden developed an exceptionally close relationship with the nascent Jewish state.
In the two decades to come, Stockholm came to express ideological sympathy for Israel, which mirrored attitudes of other European and Scandinavian countries. Policymakers perceived the country as, in the words of the Book of Isaiah, “a light unto the nations,” where Western democratic values were merged with socialist and egalitarian ideals by a people who had almost been extinguished in the Holocaust and had risen miraculously from the ashes.
Similarly, political sympathy was expressed for the Jewish state as the weaker party in the conflict, while responsibility for hostilities was placed on its neighboring Arab countries generated by the perception of a democratic “David” fighting against the mighty and dictatorial “Goliath.” These links were reinforced by exchanges between Sweden’s Trade Union Confederation and the Histadrut labor federation.
This policy went through a radical change during the early 1970s with the rise of Olof Palme, Sweden’s socialist prime minister from 1969 to 1976 and from 1982 until his assassination in 1986. Palme came to implement an activist-take on Sweden’s foreign policy of neutrality, including support for self-proclaimed independence and national liberation movements. He became the first Western prime minister to initiate direct contacts with the PLO in 1974, meeting with Yasser Arafat during a time when the organization was isolated and the Palestinian leader was regarded as a terrorist throughout the Western world.
ISRAEL, THE previously embattled David, was now viewed as the new Goliath and the main obstacle toward a resolution of the conflict. The change emanated from what the premier described as the country’s “ethical obligation” toward the Palestinians. Soon, Stockholm became one of the major international supporters of the PLO and was the only Western European country to vote with the Arab, Communist bloc, and Third World states in support of UN General Assembly resolution 3326 (1974) and Security Council Resolution 3327 (1975), which recognized Palestinian self-determination and the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Foreign minister Yigal Allon concluded that the move constituted surrender to the Arab oil embargo, alleging it was tantamount to encouragement of terrorism.
While Sweden’s growing focus on Palestinian rights mirrored that of other European countries following the end of the Six Day War, its engagement was stronger and more intense, a position that came to determine Stockholm’s policy for the next quarter-century. Gradually, Sweden became perceived as one of the Jewish state’s most vocal critics in Western Europe, if not among the harshest outside of the Arab world and its supporters in the Eastern Bloc. Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, Chaim Herzog, dubbed this policy orientation “a shameful betrayal of principles,” concluding, “We felt as if we had been stabbed in the back by a friendly country that wasn’t even supposed to have a knife.”
Following Palme’s assassination, this orientation was upheld by Sten Andersson, the longstanding, influential party secretary of the Social Democratic Party (1962-1982) and foreign minister (1985-1991). It remained rather constant, with minor adjustments, until socialist prime minister Göran Persson normalized Sweden’s relations with Israel between 1999 and 2001, articulating a greater understanding for Jerusalem’s positions in the conflict.
Persson’s policy revision – which challenged opposition within his own party and government – was implemented in 1999, through the first official Swedish prime ministerial visit to Israel since 1962, which proved to be the last to date. Succeeding initiatives strengthened the historically strained relations, while Sweden simultaneously maintained its traditionally strong relationship with the Palestinians.
The thawing diplomatic relationship yielded some progress. Sweden facilitated two rounds of secret, high-level Israeli-Palestinian back-channel negotiations headed by Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ahmed Qurei in 2000, in the process leading up to the failed Camp David Summit hosted by then-US president Bill Clinton. This rapprochement was short-lived and came to a definite halt when Stockholm reverted to the Palme tradition in 2014 through its recognition of a Palestinian state.
Sweden’s relations with Israel remained tense during the tenure of Stockholm’s Center-Right governments, which ousted the Persson administration in 2006 and remained in power until 2014, due to the pro-Palestinian engagement of its conservative foreign minister Carl Bildt. It remains to be seen if Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s visit this week to Israel will contribute to a long-standing new chapter in the historically turbulent Swedish-Israeli relations.
The writer is a political scientist, writer on international affairs and a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, researching Swedish-Israeli relations. He has served as a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, as visiting scholar at the European Institute at Columbia University, and as an International Security Program fellow with New America.