Analysis: What does FM Wallstrom’s departure mean for Swedish-Israeli relations?

It appears that Sweden may simply be replacing one anti-Israel foreign minister with another. 

By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

What does Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström’s departure mean for Swedish-Israeli relations? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the often-rocky diplomatic ties between Sweden and Israel?

The controversial Wallström recently announced her resignation. Sweden’s veteran top diplomat cited “family reasons” behind her sudden departure from political life. This may or may not be true.

What is certain is that during her tenure as Sweden’s foreign minister, Wallström emerged as one of Israel’s harshest critics in Europe.

Under her leadership, relations between Stockholm and Jerusalem deteriorated sharply. In 2014, Wallström’s Sweden became the first European Union country to unilaterally recognize “Palestine” as an independent state.

Furthermore, Sweden strongly supports Mahmoud Abbas’s regime financially and politically while ignoring Ramallah’s lethal incitement against Israel and Jews.

Wallström indirectly blamed Israel for the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. According to Wallström’s worldview, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the “mother of all conflicts” and Stockholm largely blames Israel for the lack of peace.

When Israel was hit by a wave of Islamist knife terrorism in late 2015, Wallström equated Israel’s self-defensive measures with “extrajudicial killings.”

At the United Nations, Sweden has consistently sided with Israel’s despotic enemies more than most other Western democracies. For instance, Sweden voted in favor of an anti-Semitic Islamic UNESCO declaration that whitewashed more than 3000 years of Jewish history in Jerusalem.

Stockholm does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. At the same time, Sweden’s government accepts Ramallah’s claims to “East Jerusalem” as a future capital of “Palestine.” As a result, Stockholm’s diplomatic channel with Israel goes through its embassy in Tel Aviv. By contrast, Sweden’s dealings with Ramallah goes through the Swedish consulate in “East Jerusalem.”

While Wallström is known for her combativeness and lack of diplomacy, she does not act in a political vacuum. Like many other senior Swedish Social Democrats, Wallström is a protégé of the late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.

Palme was a harsh critic of Israel and the United States. During the first Lebanon war in the 1980s, Palme became the first Western leader to equate Israel with Nazi Germany. Palme also compared Beirut to Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto. This did not go down well with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who lost most of his family during the Holocaust.

It is unlikely that Wallström’s departure signals any significant change in Swedish foreign policy towards Israel and the Middle East. In fact, the recent appointment of Anna Linde as Sweden’s new foreign minister indicates a continuation of established policies.

Linde is more diplomatic than Wallström. However, the difference is more in style than in policy.

The Swedish government prides itself on conducting a “feminist” foreign policy. This policy supposedly advocates democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular.

In practice, Stockholm has developed relations with totalitarian regimes that reject democracy and human rights. In particular, Sweden’s current government has cozy ties with Mahmoud Abbas’s Ramallah regime and Iran.

During a recent interview on Swedish television, Foreign Minister Linde said that she seeks to “establish a better relationship with Israel.”

At the same time, the new foreign minister predictably condemned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration to eventually annex Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. During the interview, Linde referred to Abbas’s regime as “Palestine.”

In 2011, Linde received the “Palestine Friend of the Year” award by a Palestinian Arab organization in Sweden. In 2017, Linde was criticized for wearing a Muslim hijab during a meeting with the Iranian president Rouhani. In early 2019, Linde was criticized for attending the Iranian embassy’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

The governing Swedish Social Democratic party’s Middle East policy is less driven by Middle Eastern realities and more by ideology and political opportunism. Israel is not particularly popular in Sweden and the tiny Swedish Jewish community is dwindling. By contrast, Sweden has a large and rapidly growing Muslim population, which is becoming an important political factor in Sweden.

Since most Swedish Muslims vote on the political left, the left-wing Social Democrats will not alienate Muslim voters by adopting policies that could be perceived as “pro-Israel.”

Like France and Germany, Sweden’s government also advocates strong trade ties with Iran. Even a potential Israeli center-left government will not change the priorities of the Swedish Social Democrats. At the same time, Sweden’s direct influence on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict is very limited.

As long as Sweden’s Middle East policy remains unchanged, it is unlikely that the frosty diplomatic relations between Stockholm and Jerusalem will improve anytime soon.

However, unlike the Swedish government’s seemingly obsessive focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict, an increasing number of Swedish companies are interested in closer commercial ties with Israel’s high-tech industry.

Both countries are small export-focused knowledge-based economies. Since foreign minister Linde is known for supporting international trade, she could use her new position of influence to boost trade relations and technological cooperation between Sweden and Israel.