Sweden’s new prime minister, Stefan Lofven, gave his first speech to parliament on Friday, announcing that Sweden would recognize a Palestinian state. The responses weren’t long in coming: The Palestinian foreign minister urged other countries to follow in Sweden’s footsteps, the Israeli foreign minister summoned the Swedish ambassador for a reprimand, and even Israel’s leader of the opposition held talks with the errant Swedes. But before the knives come out, it’s worth investigating what stands behind this Swedish declaration and what Israelis ought to understand from it.
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One commonly mistaken approach is the gleeful cries of “we told you so” by Israelis convinced that the Swedish declaration, like everything else that emanates from Europe, is due to the “Muslim takeover” of the continent. This belief is based on false demographic data and erroneous assumptions about jihadists who sow terror on the streets of Stockholm.
This doesn’t mean the situation in Sweden is good. There is anti-Semitism, there are problems in absorbing migrants, and at the margins there are also acts of violence.
But Sweden isn’t France. Migrants from all over the world, including the Middle East, have been absorbed there with relative success, and nobody is trying to impose Sharia law on the country. In any case, examining the political reality in which Lofven operates would be more helpful to understanding his pronouncement than searching for Islamist conspiracies.
The Social Democratic Party, like Israel’s Mapai (a precursor to the Labor Party), built modern Sweden and held power for most of the 20th century. And just as Mapai in its day, the SDP is so big that it contains both a right and a left, both an old guard and young Turks, as well as various personal rivalries.
Lofven was elected to head the party as a compromise candidate among its various camps, with the goal of restoring it to power after eight years in opposition. He delivered the goods, but his electoral victory was razor-thin and his government is a minority coalition. Now he must keep his party united to avoid losing power.
Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy, also applies to Lofven’s announcement. It was meant to compensate his party’s left wing for both its relative paucity of ministerial positions and the domestic policies he intends to adopt.
When it comes to foreign policy, Lofven is a political novice. Until two years ago, he served as head of the metalworkers union. He’s a welder from northern Sweden with no parliamentary or ministerial experience, and he will devote his term of office primarily to the Swedish economy – job creation, export promotion and the welfare system. Nevertheless, he is committed to the Social Democratic tradition, which views Sweden as a neutral state that doesn’t align with any great power and is committed to a diplomacy of peace and humanitarian aid.
But Swedish neutrality has many ills, from its opportunistic practice in both world wars, through the activism of former Prime Minister Olof Palme in the 1970s, to the pro-American policy of several of Palme’s successors. And Lofven will have to pick his way through a welter of competing pressures. The right wants to join NATO, the left is demanding steadfast opposition to America on issues like online espionage, and the defense establishment fears Lofven’s coalition partner, the Green Party, which opposes military exports and nuclear energy.
Thus it could be that as a new prime minister, he decided to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to appease the Greens and advance other issues dear to his heart, like the defense industry, to which he is closely connected. (The appointment as housing minister of Green Party member Mehmet Kaplan, who participated in the ill-fated Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza in May 2010, was a step in the same direction.)
In any case, Lofven isn’t hostile to Israel. A few months ago he wrote that Israel is a role model in entrepreneurship; he supported its right to self-defense during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza; and he participated in a march against anti-Semitism in Stockholm. Lofven is a compromiser and pragmatist, not a dogmatic ideologue.
It should also be noted that the meaning of his announcement in parliament isn’t completely clear. He didn’t set a timetable for the move; he promised to hold talks with both sides; and the announcement was wrapped in statements about the importance of mutual recognition and the right of both parties to security and self-determination.
More importantly, although Sweden does have a degree of influence in the European Union, it isn’t one of the union’s major players.
And in the future, after he accumulates political capital and experience, Lofven might actually be able to contribute to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international community has tried everything: direct and indirect talks, mediators and international conferences. Perhaps a labor leader, a man of compromises and collective agreements, could succeed in a place where many diplomats and statesmen have tried and failed.
The author is an Israeli journalist who lives in Sweden and Israel.