Israel and Sweden’s War of Words

An outrageous anti-Semitic article in a Swedish newspaper caused a diplomatic row with Israel. But what's really behind the sturm-und-drang?

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The war of words between the Swedish and Israeli governments seems to be over for now. Whatever follows, one thing is clear: The tensions will not disappear anytime soon.

On Aug. 17, the left-leaning Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet ran an exposé with the headline "They Plunder the Organs of Our Sons" in its culture pages. It made a series of bizarre and unfounded allegations about the Israeli Defense Forces harvesting organs from killed and gutted Palestinians. It was a guilt-by-association hit piece, with a dark undercurrent of anti-Semitism.

Naturally, the article set off some criticism in Sweden and Israel, two countries whose relations at the moment are best characterized as uneasy. But the Aftonbladet affair ultimately is not a case of prejudiced journalism. It reveals deeper politics: the widening rift between Israel — with its current right-wing government — and Sweden and the European Union, where sympathies in the Middle East conflict have drifted to the Palestinian side.

The Aftonbladet article, at first, didn’t make much of a rumble. As a Swedish Jewish leader told Haaretz, "No one even noticed [it]." But then, two days later, the Swedish ambassador in Tel Aviv, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, made an official statement, published on the embassy’s Web site, calling the article "shocking and appalling." The Swedish Foreign Ministry immediately backtracked, calling the statement a "local initiative," not the official view of the Swedish government.

This in turn angered the Israelis, and the affair became a foreign-policy concern writ large. The government in Jerusalem publicly demanded a condemnation from the Swedish government. Stockholm’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he would not do so because Sweden has freedom of the press and the government does not condemn newspaper articles.

By then, the conversation in Sweden had already shifted to legality and freedom of speech, rather than the prejudices behind the article. Jan Helin, Aftonbladet‘s editor in chief, must have been grateful for the change in focus — and so, presumably, was much of the Swedish public, which would prefer not to think about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in its own country and in the rest of Europe.

But the Israeli government would not let it go. On Aug. 20, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman released a statement saying: "It is a shame that the Swedish Foreign Ministry does not get involved when speaking about blood libels against Jews, something that is reminiscent of Sweden’s position during World War II, when it also did not intervene."

Many in Sweden considered Lieberman’s words over the top, and they were. However, they were also a key part of Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to get the upper hand on the Swedish government, especially as Sweden at the moment chairs the 27-member European Union.

To Israelis, Sweden seems destined to misunderstand their predicament. Tucked between Finland, Norway, and Denmark, Sweden has the friendliest neighbors in the world. Israel has the world’s most hostile and resentful. There is a Swedish no-doubt-about-it conviction that differences, however deep and old, always can be settled in negotiations. Regarding the Middle East, Swedes tend to think that if Israel as the stronger party took the first, and even second, step, the Palestinians and their Arab brothers would follow suit — as sure as day follows night. And Swedish inclinations are very much Europe’s inclinations.

This is problematic for Israel, which is under great pressure from the United States and the European Union, especially concerning the settlements. Israel’s U.S. and European allies want a two-state solution now, not in some distant future. But for Israelis, the distant future is the only feasible scenario for such a change — especially given the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, and the unwillingness of some Arab states to make even symbolic gestures of goodwill. Furthermore, the Palestinians are no longer the most pressing issue for Israel. Iran is. And for good reason: Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, with its continued armament, its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, its intransigence on the nuclear issue, and its leaders’ threats to "wipe Israel off the map."

U.S. President Barack Obama has given Iran until late September to respond to an offer of talks about Tehran’s nuclear program — but only if it freezes uranium enrichment. If it does not, it will face tougher sanctions. But for sanctions to work, Obama needs Europeans’ support, which they are hesitant to give. Germany is the largest economy in the European Union, and Iran’s biggest trading partner in Europe. Political demands for harder sanctions on the regime in Tehran will meet heavy resistance in German business circles. Israel wants U.S. and European inaction on the settlements and — more than anything else — action on Iran. (Both of these are things Sweden can theoretically help provide.) Therefore, Netanyahu and Lieberman are deploying all diplomatic means possible — even if it means playing on the consciences of European leaders for their countries’ inactions and sins of omission during World War II and the Holocaust.

The Aftonbladet article, with its allusions to age-old anti-Semitic myths, gave Israeli leaders a tool to use to that end. It might not be pretty. It will probably not work. But who can blame them for trying?

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