Sweden and Israel: A complex relationship

If history is any guide to the future, Stockholm’s ambition to build bridges to peace will remain a vision as long as Swedish-Israeli relations remain in their current state.

Flags of Israel and Sweden (photo credit: Courtesy)
Flags of Israel and Sweden
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström caused a maelstrom recently when she called for an investigation into whether Israel has used extrajudicial killings during the current wave of terrorist attacks that have targeted its citizens.
The statement provoked a strong reaction across the political spectrum with deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely declaring Wallström persona non grata, stating that her Swedish colleague was “de facto supporting” terrorism via “a terrible combination of foolishness and diplomatic stupidity.”
Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis went further, suggesting that, instead, there should be an investigation into “how a woman who so bluntly hates Israel was elected and still holds the role of foreign minister of Sweden.” Israel made clear it would bar Sweden from any future role in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Wallström’s move is consistent with Sweden’s long-standing approach to Middle East diplomacy. While the Nordic country became one of Israel’s major European supporters in the period leading up to the Six Day War, the relationship did not start off on good terms. Sweden’s de jure recognition of Israel was postponed until 1950 following Lehi’s assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem in 1948 to protest his efforts to modify the Palestine partition plan.
In the two decades to come, Stockholm came to express strong ideological sympathy for the Jewish state. The development of cordial Swedish-Israeli relations, which mirrored those of other European and Scandinavian countries, were based upon a conception of shared socialist, collectivist and democratic values. Political sympathy was expressed for Israel as the weaker party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, while responsibility for hostilities was placed on its neighboring Arab countries.
This policy went through a radical change during the early 1970s with the rise of Swedish Socialist prime minister Olof Palme, which determined Stockholm’s position toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and its protagonists for the next quarter- century.
Palme implemented an activist and internationalist 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 viewed as the new Goliath and the main obstacle toward a resolution of the conflict. The policy change emanated from what the premier described as the country’s “ethical obligation” toward the Palestinians.
Stockholm soon became one of the major international supporters of 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, its engagement was stronger and more intense. 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.
This policy remained constant, with minor adjustments, until prime minister Göran Persson normalized Sweden’s relations with Israel between 1999 and 2001, articulating a greater understanding for Jerusalem’s positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The thawing diplomatic relationship, manifested by the first prime ministerial visit to Jerusalem since 1962, yielded some progress. Sweden facilitated two rounds of secret, high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations headed by Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ahmed Qurei, in 2000, in the process leading up to the Camp David Summit.
The Swedish-Israeli rapprochement was nonetheless short-lived. Stockholm’s new minority government reverted to the Palme tradition in 2014 by becoming the first EU member state to recognize a Palestinian state, notwithstanding that some Eastern European countries had done so during the Cold War.
The recognition – which in Sweden’s eyes aimed to further the peace process – and the fact that the country’s new housing minister had been arrested in 2010 by Israeli authorities as a participant in the Mavi Marmara flotilla – was met by widespread condemnation. Jerusalem recalled its ambassador for consultations while foreign minister Avigdor Liberman caustically concluded that “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.”
Despite the fact that systematic human rights abuses take place on a daily basis in non-democratic countries such as North Korea – which has established a system of prison camps where 200,000 dissidents are subjected to systematic torture and starvation – the Swedish government continues to focus on Middle Eastern affairs.
This selective engagement can be explained by the fact that countries like North Korea generally do not generate widespread media coverage or political debate. More significantly, however, Sweden – a small and peaceful Scandinavian country which has not taken part in any direct military conflicts or alliances since the end of the Napoleonic Wars – holds the view that its engagement has the potential to further the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process.
This mirrors a longstanding, most often unsuccessful self-proclaimed ambition dating back as early as 1947, when Swedish justice Emil Sandström became chairman of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), tasked with presenting a solution to the Arab–Jewish conflict.
The engagement continued in 1948 with Bernadotte’s legacy as the first UN mediator in the conflict and Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring’s subsequent largely unsuccessful mission in 1967-1990 as the UN secretary general’s special envoy to the Middle East peace process. The Scandinavian country made a subsequent fruitless effort to initiate a dialogue between the US and the PLO through initiatives taken in 1988 and facilitated the so-called “Beilin- Abu Mazen Understandings” in 1994.
If history is any guide to the future, Stockholm’s ambition to build bridges to peace will remain a vision as long as Swedish-Israeli relations remain in their current state.
The author is a political scientist and visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is a writer and expert on international affairs and has served as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs and Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies.