Lieberman and the Swedish Foreign Minister: Boycott or Campaign Spin?

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Foreign Minister Avigdor LiebermanCredit: AFP

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström on Wednesday was surprised to hear that her Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, is "boycotting" her. Wallström's astonishment stemmed from the fact that, to the best of her knowledge, she was not scheduled to meet Lieberman during her forthcoming visit to Israel because he is too busy with the election campaign for his party, Yisrael Beiteinu.

Israel's Channel 2 on Wednesday reported that Israel's foreign minister decided to shun Wallström, denying her a meeting during her visit. Lieberman's decision to give her the cold shoulder reportedly was motivated by the Swedish government's decision several weeks ago to officially recognize a Palestinian state.

However, conversations with senior Swedish diplomats and Israeli diplomats paint a different picture. They hinted that Lieberman was trying to spin the situation in his favor – at the expense of the Swedish minister – now that election season is underway.

Wallström is expected to visit Israel in several weeks to attend a ceremony in Tel Aviv marking the 70th anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

During World War II, Wallenberg was stationed in Budapest, where he issued Swedish protective passports to Jews in the Hungarian city, saving tens of thousands of them from being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army after Soviet forces captured Budapest and vanished in one of the former Soviet Union's prisons. His disappearance has been called one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II and the subject of joint investigations by the Russians and Swedes.

Wallenberg is still considered a national hero in Sweden, and in 2012, Sweden, Hungary and Israel held joint commemoration activities to mark his 100th birthday.

Meanwhile, Sweden's government collapsed earlier this month, leaving Wallström serving as the foreign minister of a caretaker government that is in place until elections are held in March.

As such, her visit to Israel was intended to focus on Wallenberg-related activities, not diplomatic affairs. At the same time, this is her first visit to Israel since the Swedish government's decision on recognizing Palestine – a move that sparked a crisis with Jerusalem and prompted Israel to recall its ambassador in protest.

As part of the preparations for Wallström's visit, the Swedish ambassador to Israel, Carl Magnus Nesser, inquired whether the Foreign Ministry could arrange a meeting for her with Lieberman. Swedish diplomats said the response from the Foreign Ministry and from the Israeli envoy in Stockholm, Isaac Bachman, was that Lieberman is preoccupied with the election campaign and is not meeting foreign ministers until further notice.

Senior foreign ministry officials confirmed the Swedish version. They reiterated that there had not been any instruction to inform the Swedes that they were being boycotted or that they would not be allowed to meet with Lieberman due to Sweden's recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Swedish diplomats said that their peers in Spain and Norway who had tried to arrange similar meetings for January were met with the same response.

The foreign ministry sources confirmed that messages had been sent to Spain and Norway that it would be preferable to postpone visits until after the elections in Israel. They added that all Israeli embassies around the world had been instructed to tell those wanting to visit Israel that visits should be postponed until after the elections because it would be very difficult to arrange meetings with ministers during the campaign.

"We understood that this was the message being relayed to all the countries," a Swedish diplomat said. Senior officials at the Foreign Ministry confirmed that Spain and Norway were informed it would be better to postpone such meetings until after the Israeli election.

Sources at the Foreign Minister's office claimed in response that Lieberman gave very clear instructions to senior diplomats that he is not interested in meeting Wallström due to the Palestinian recognition. They said Bachman told the Swedes that election season is not a convenient time for a visit and meeting with Lieberman, but also hinted that ties were still frayed over the Palestinian issue.

The Swedish diplomats said that only general remarks were made about the tensions between Israel and Sweden both in conversations between Bachman and senior Swedish envoys and in contacts between the Foreign Ministry and the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv.

"No one told us that Lieberman doesn't want to meet our foreign minister because of the recognition of a Palestinian state," said a Swedish diplomat. "We heard about it from the Israeli media."

The diplomat added that there were various hints about the strained relationship, "but the main reason that was presented was that Lieberman is busy with the election campaign and is not meeting foreign ministers at all. It's clear there is a dark cloud looming over the [two countries'] ties. There is a difference of opinion on a matter that is important to both countries. We don’t have to kiss and hug, but it is a good reason to sit and talk."

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