What is it that impels Sweden, an enlightened social-democratic country, to go on attack against us more than any other European country, in a sort of constant cycle, surprising us time and again with unusual diplomatic moves regarding the conflict with the Palestinians?
This conduct characterized Sweden’s modus operandi even before it joined the European Union in 1995, and apparently it finds difficulty weaning itself of the habit even during its term of membership in the club. The Swedish activism reached new heights with the recent outrageous remarks by the foreign minister, Margot Wallström, and worse, in her decision a year ago, immediately upon the return of the Social Democrats to government, to recognize Palestine as a state. That far-reaching diplomatic act – which differed from the declarative recognition granted to Palestine by several European parliaments – left Sweden (for now) in inglorious solitude against its partners in the EU.
Why does Sweden behave the way it does? First of all, the internal arena. It could be that the ruling Social Democratic party, which is a minority party, feels the ground burning below its feet and is in a hurry to create facts on the ground, including in subjects about which the Swedish public is mixed, such as recognizing Palestine. Perhaps it’s also an attempt to attract the Muslim vote in the country.
However, to truly understand the Swedish anti-Israeli activity, one has to go back decades in time, to when Sweden was headed by the Social Democratic party led by Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1986 (though possibly one could go back further, and see the assassination of the Swedish count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations envoy, in 1948 as the start of the trouble; that murder weighed on relations between the two countries until reconciliation was achieved and the case closed in 1996, during my service as ambassador).
In any case, Palme adopted a policy that was controversial in his own country too, and supported the PLO (and the Viet Cong), leading the elements in the West that had strived to gain legitimacy for Yasser Arafat as head of a freedom movement. As a result, our relations with Sweden entered a path of incessant clashes, leaving a dark residue of bitterness.
Palme’s successors, like Foreign Minister Sten Andersson who tried in the late 1980s to bring the Israeli government and PLO to talk, and failed, were forced to watch with envious eyes as the Norwegians managed to bring about the Oslo Accords in 1993. Since then, Sweden’s attitude toward us has been a factor of the degree of progress or retreat in the peace process with the Palestinians.
In late 1997, the Swedish position significantly moved, as demonstrated in the speech by the foreign minister at the time, Lena Hjelm-Wallén, which publicly sided for the first time with the establishment of a Palestinian state and categorically called for a total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, under international law and UN resolutions.
The political forces in Sweden and Israel, and the replacement of key people in both countries, had considerable influence on the quality of the bilateral relationship. Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, who stood out for his friendly attitude toward Israel, reined in the keen ambition of the “Palmeists” in his party and at the Foreign Ministry to grow closer to Arafat, and struck a more balanced attitude toward both parties (his activity at home and abroad in memorializing the Holocaust is also noteworthy). But later, social-democratic Sweden reverted.
More than being driven by anti-Israeli sentiment, Sweden seems to be driven by that same self-righteous identification with the Palestinian “underdog.” In this framework, it was also important to Sweden not to be seen, from the outside, as too biased toward the Palestinian side, though in practice it is indeed biased – in order not to entirely lose its credibility in our eyes.
Basically, now as then, social-democratic Sweden has turned the establishment of a Palestinian state into a flagship project of its foreign policy, and it will not rest until its vision takes flesh and bears its stamp. Throughout the timeline that has passed, the designers of the policy from the house of Palme have taken pride in the manifestation of their forecasts, and believed that Sweden played a historic role in accelerating processes of rapprochement between the two peoples, doing the groundwork for the Oslo agreement.
Over the years Sweden hoped that the positive dynamic in the peace process, even if it stutters, would lead Israel to accept its perception too, and usually avoided hasty unilateral steps that would set the diplomatic pot aboil. At this present point in time, it seems their patience has expired, given the diplomatic deadlock and danger of deterioration to violence. In its despair, it deviated from the cautious line taken by the EU and whipped out the D-Day weapon from its diplomatic arsenal – namely recognition of the Palestinian state – without moderating the caustic tones used by its leaders regarding Israel. Truthfully, though, Sweden long since crossed the lines regarding a Palestinian state, which from its perspective has been the axiomatic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians all along, a solution that it believes will benefit Israel as well.
The author served as Israel’s ambassador to Sweden from 1994 to 1999.
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