InterviewSweden was first W. European nation to recognize Palestine

Swedish parliament speaker: We seek better ties with Israel

In Jerusalem, Urban Ahlin acknowledges ‘differences of opinion’ but insists that Stockholm is a ‘steadfast friend’ of the Jewish state

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Swedish Parliament speaker Urban Ahlin, left, with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2017 (Jorge Novominsky)
Swedish Parliament speaker Urban Ahlin, left, with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2017 (Jorge Novominsky)

Sweden is eagerly seeking to improve the currently less-than-stellar relations between Stockholm and Jerusalem, the speaker of the country’s parliament said this week during a three-day trip to the region.

“The purpose of my visit is to show that there’s a big interest in the Swedish side to have a good relationship with Israel,” Urban Ahlin told The Times of Israel. “We think there’s a lot areas where we could cooperate even better than we do today, such as a trade and IT,” he said, adding that Israel is known for its startup scene.

“For me, Israel is very close to my heart. We’re doing everything we can in the Swedish parliament to highlight issues like the struggle against anti-Semitism,” Ahlin said.

When Sweden in 2014 became the first Western European nation to recognize a Palestinian state, bilateral relations with Israel took a steep nosedive. Tensions increased after Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, made a series of controversial comments, including a demand that Israelis be investigated for alleged extrajudicial killings of Palestinians.

In December 2016, Israeli officials threatened to boycott Wallstrom during a planned trip to the region (which she subsequently canceled). Earlier this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to meet with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Swedish Parliament speaker Urban Ahlin, right, and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, inspect ah honor guard at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2017 (Jorge Novominsky)

Ahlin, who quit Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic Party when he became speaker of the Riksdag in 2014, was invited to Israel by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who had recently been to Stockholm. He met with Edelstein and several MKs at the Knesset — where he was welcomed by an honor guard — but did not have sit-downs with senior government officials.

In Ramallah, he met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who used his photo op to call on other European countries to recognize the State of Palestine.

During an interview in the capital’s Mamilla Hotel, Ahlin noted that more than a hundred countries in the world recognized Palestine before Sweden did, adding that Stockholm doesn’t regret its decision.

“The Swedish government has taken that decision to recognize [Palestine]. That is the policy of Sweden. And it cannot be revoked,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will revoke it, if it even were possible,” he said.

“I am absolutely sure that many people in Sweden realize that recognizing Palestine would upset a lot of Israelis. It would be naive to think otherwise. As speaker, I can also tell you that in the Swedish parliament, from the left to the right, there is strong support of a two-state solution.”

The Embassy is happy to share the warm welcoming of the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament HE Mr. Urban Ahlin to the Knesset. After being greeted with an honor guard, the Speaker laid a wreath at the commemorative monument outside the Knesset. He then met with his Israeli counterpart Speaker HE Edelstein and the Chairman of the Israel-Sweden Parliamentary Friendship Group, Eyal Ben Reuven.

Posted by Embassy of Sweden in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ahlin said he could understand why many Israelis were unhappy with the move and acknowledged that it could temporarily lead them to view Sweden only through the prism of its approach to the peace process.

“In reality, Israelis really know that Sweden is a steadfast friend of Israel. And we have shown it in history, and we will show it in the future.”

Most Israelis, he said, do not view Sweden as hostile to Israel, he said.

“I think ordinary Israelis know what Sweden is about. It’s a modern welfare state, an open society, very democratic. It’s a society that stands up for international law and human rights,” he said, citing famous Swedes who saved Jews during the Holocaust, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Folke Bernadotte.

Citing his constitutional requirement to remain politically neutral, he refused to discuss in detail Wallstrom’s controversial statements, which Netanyahu last year called “immoral” and “stupid.”

“We might sometimes have differences of opinion on things. That’s absolutely normal in any international context. But we want to have good relations.”

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