Israel’s Ambassador to Sweden Rejects Far-right – and Stirs Political Storm

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Sweden Democrats celebrate during Sweden's election night in Stockholm, in 2014.
A spokesperson for the Sweden Democrats said he does not share the ambassador's understanding of the situationCredit: Associated Press

Israel's new ambassador to Sweden, Ziv Nevo Kulman, is eliciting strong reactions in the country following an interview he gave to Swedish newspaper, in which he said that Israel has no ties to the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats party.

The ambassador's interview followed the official visit by Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Israel, which was the first such visit in ten years. It was seen by many as a new start for bilateral relations between Israel and Sweden after the frigid period that came with Sweden’s recognition of Palestinian statehood in 2014.

Speaking to the Dagens Nyheter daily, Nevo Kulman, who took his post in August, said that Israel has no relations with the Sweden Democrats and has no intention of establishing such ties in the future. He does not mean to get involved in Sweden's democratic process, he said, "but this is a moral position that is about far-right parties with roots in Nazism."

He continued, "We don't have, and don't intend to establish, any contact with the Sweden Democrats. They can say that they support Israel, but you also have to look at what they don't support. We will also not have contact with openly Islamophobic parties. This also applies to other countries in Europe.”

The Sweden Democrats party was founded in the late 80's as a result of a series of mergers of political movements on Sweden's far-right, nationalist and neo-Nazi scene. Since then, it has become closer to the mainstream, referring to itself as a "nationalist and social-conservative" party. It entered the Swedish parliament in 2010, and is currently the third-largest political party in Sweden.

Anders Lindberg, left-leaning political editor-in-chief of the Aftonbladet daily wrote that Israel's clear spoken language about "far-right parties with roots in Nazism" should be seen as a "wake-up call" to his home country. He also claimed that the Israeli statement emphasized that the Sweden Democrats’ Nazi past and ideology should make it impossible for democratic parties to have any contact with them.

On the other hand, on the right, many claimed on social media that Nevo Kulman was meddling in Swedish politics. "I hardly think that an ‘apartheid state’ built on stolen land where the original inhabitants are treated as less-than-second-class citizens are in a position to lecture others on ‘xenophobia,’" one critic wrote on Twitter, "nor is what happens in Sweden any of your business." Another wrote, "Please avoid burning bridges at this point, you might change your mind after a year in an almost-dystopia of rampant crime, Arabic clan infiltration and imported antisemitism."

On the other hand, a right-wing, pro-Israel lawmaker, Lars Adaktusson from the Christian Democrat party, was quoted in the online daily Opulens magazine saying that he believes relations between the countries won't be affected by Nevo Kulman's statement. Israel, he said, could indeed have relations even with a government supported by the Sweden Democrats, just like it had relations with other European governments which were supported by right-wing populist parties, such as Austria.

Aron Emilsson, a spokesperson for the Sweden Democrats told conservative daily newspaper Världen Idag that he does not share the ambassador's understanding of the situation and does not recognize his party in the ambassador's description. "There's a wide support for our Israel-friendly policy amongst the Jewish population in Sweden and abroad," he added. "We'll continue to pursue a policy that protects Israel's right to protect itself and at the same time upholds democratic freedoms and rights in the Middle East, and within this framework we also welcome dialogue with Israel's new ambassador to Sweden."

"The publication of the interview with the ambassador brought many reactions in Sweden," said an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement. "Most were very supportive, including the reaction of the leadership of the Jewish community. Sadly, in the last 48 hours, the ambassador has been subjected to personal attacks on social media, some of which are of a distinct antisemitic nature.”

The statement said that Israel's position has not changed and the Israeli government "avoids contact with representatives of far-right parties with roots in neo-Nazi movements. That is the policy in other European countries, and that was the policy of the ambassador's predecessors.”

Though part of the Swedish political establishment today, the Sweden Democrats do indeed have roots in Nazism. Some of the party's founders were known Nazis, such as its first auditor, Gustaf Ekström, who was a Waffen-SS veteran. The party's first spokesperson Leif Ericsson and its first chairman Anders Klarström were both active in various neo-Nazi and extremist right-wing parties, and the chairman of the party's youth organization, Robert Vesterlund, was also a known neo-Nazi. During the 80's and 90's, the party was a marginal force in Swedish politics, and it began distancing itself from extremism and aligning itself closer to mainstream politics in the mid 90's.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde. The ambassador's statement came following her headline-making visit to IsraelCredit: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/REUTERS

Still, unlike other European populist right-wing parties, the Sweden Democrats were unable to gain real political power, as the entire Swedish political establishment, from left to right, neutralized it by refusing to negotiate with it. Until recently, other right-wing parties refused to form a government supported by the Sweden Democrats, which led to a split right-wing vote and to two terms of center-left governments.

However, In the latest general elections in 2018, the party won supported 17.5 percent of the vote which led the two mainstream right-wing parties – the Moderate party and the Christian Democrats – to warm up to it. Those two parties are now willing to negotiate with it and could possibly form a government with its support following the next general elections in September 2022.

If this scenario becomes a reality, Israel could find itself in a politically complex position. Distancing itself from the Sweden Democrats, though a popular move with the Swedish left and center, may be seen as ungrateful and provocative to the Swedish right, and could potentially harm relations between the two countries if it gains power. When asked in the interview what Israel would do if the Sweden Democrats were to join the Swedish government, Nevo Kulman answered: "That's hypothetical, so I can't really answer that.”

Israeli criticism of the party, though, is not unprecedented. In 2018, Israel's former ambassador to Sweden, Ilan Ben Dov, criticized the Sweden Democrats after one of their leaders said that Jews in Sweden are not Swedes. In 2016, a meeting between Israel’s then-Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotoveli and a group of American and EU officials was cancelled because a Sweden Democrats representative of the European Parliament was supposed to participate.

Israeli officials have on many occasions expressed strong views against populist right-wing parties in Europe, boycotting the likes of Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France and Austria's Freedom Party. But the government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained ties with far-right parties that gained power in countries like Hungary and Poland.

In his interview, Nevo Kulman also criticized other parties. He said that some members of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party hold mistaken views about the Palestinians, in that the center-left faction wishes “To get the Palestinians to respect gender equality, LGBTQ rights and turn them into a small Nordic nation in the Middle East with the help of foreign aid. I'm just saying: good luck.” he said.

He also stated that antisemitism takes other forms than the classical one found on the right. ”Sometimes there is antisemitism in Muslim groups; perhaps immigration to Malmö has contributed to the increase there,” he said, referring to the city with a large Arab immigrant population. “But antisemitism also comes from the extreme left, but then often disguised: 'We have nothing against Jews, but we do not like Zionists.’ Or when criticism of Israeli politics shifts to something else: When one criticizes Israel not for what it does, but for what it is – then we have a problem.”

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