Why are the Nordic countries so cold to Israel?

Just weeks before Sweden vowed to recognize Palestine, Denmark and Finland threatened Jerusalem with sanctions. It’s not just because of Muslim immigrants

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

Illustrative photo of a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 20, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 20, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Sweden’s declared intention to recognize a Palestinian state has made major headlines in Israel and even caused a minor diplomatic brawl, but is just the latest installment in a series of moves made by the Nordic countries in recent weeks that caused ire in Jerusalem.

In late September, Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard threatened “new steps, including a change in our trade relations with Israel,” in case the ceasefire negotiations with Hamas in Cairo didn’t go the way the Europeans wanted.

Earlier that month, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja also warned Jerusalem that trade and other relations might suffer if the peace process doesn’t advance at the pace Helsinki desires. The European Union has offered enough carrots, he told Haaretz, adding that “it also seems that it needs the possibility of sticks. If there is no progress, [Israel] has to be shown that there are costs involved in the stalling,” he said.

Then, on Friday, incoming Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, a Social Democrat whose party just beat the center-right Moderate Party to take power, made his resonant declaration in parliament. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he stated, could only be resolved through a negotiated two-state solution that must guarantee the demands of both the Palestinians and the Israelis for national self-determination and security, as well as mutual recognition. “Therefore,” Löfven concluded, “Sweden will recognize the State of Palestine.”

Israelis reacted with varying degrees of passion. Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon called the Swedish decision “unjust, illegal and a political mistake.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sufficed to say that such unilateral steps “will not promote peace, they will impede peace.”

Danish-born Rabbi Michael Melchior, also a former deputy foreign minister, and currently the chief rabbi of Norway, said there was no reason to get worked up about Stockholm’s move. “I can understand the position that says we need to reach a negotiated peace agreement, and currently there are no negotiations,” he said. Announcing the desire to recognize a Palestinian state is “not motivated by enmity against Israel,” opined Melchior, a former Labor MK.

“What is so hostile about this position?” Melchior wondered. “They recognize the principle of two states for two peoples and say that a Palestinian state needs to be created taking into account Israel’s security needs. Yes, you could argue that recognition is a unilateral step. As if Israel doesn’t take unilateral actions in this conflict every day.”

In the wake of Löfven’s declaration , the Foreign Ministry decided to summon Stockholm’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Carl Magnus Nesser, to Jerusalem, where the head of the Europe desk, Aviv Shir-On, expressed Israel’s “concern and disappointment.” A premature recognition of a Palestine “causes a deterioration of the situation on the ground and reduces the chance of reaching an agreement because it creates the unrealistic anticipation that the Palestinians will be able to achieve their goal unilaterally rather than by negotiations with Israel,” Shir-On said.

The ambassador “noted the remarks and promised to inform his government,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Even before Monday’s meeting, Stockholm had asserted that it would not recognize Palestine “tomorrow morning,” but despite various confusing reports in Israeli media, it has not reversed its decision.

Cool relations

The Nordic countries were never among the Jewish state’s closest friends — Norway has long been accused of being the West’s most anti-Semitic state — but why did they seem to suddenly step up their agitation?

Carl Magnus, Swedish ambassador to Israel (photo credit: courtesy Swedish Embassy)
Carl Magnus, Swedish ambassador to Israel (photo credit: courtesy Swedish Embassy)

In Sweden, a quick look at the makeup of the new government offers a few hints. Some senior ministers have a clear history of anti-Israel activity. Turkish-born Mehmet Kaplan, the new housing minister from the Green Party, for instance, participated in the Mavi Marmara flotilla that sought to break the Gaza blockade in 2010. Israeli forces reportedly arrested and later deported him. During this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, he called for the “liberation of Jerusalem” at a pro-Palestinian rally.

Among the Swedish government’s native-born members, new Education Minister Gustav Fridolin, also from the Green Party, protested the security barrier near Ramallah in late 2003 and was arrested by the Israeli army.

Not all Nordic countries are equal regarding their positions on Israel, and even within a certain government there are differences, said Martin Gerstenfeld, a former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and veteran observer of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tendencies in Scandinavia. Norway’s Foreign Minister Borge Brende, for instance, belongs to the center-right Conservative Party, yet is “problematic,” but Finance Minister Siv Jensen can be considered “very pro-Israeli,” he said. The current Danish government was “unfriendly” to begin with, but Operation Protective Edge “probably accelerated” its position vis-à-vis Israel, according to Gerstenfeld.

Israel is perceived as strong and ‘white,’ therefore it is perceived as wrong

Some pundits blame increasing Muslim immigration to the Nordic countries for their pro-Palestinian stance. But religiously or ethnically inspired hatred for Israel is just one part of the story, and certainly not the dominant component, several observers said.

Rather, they point to the Nordic countries’ traditional support for the weak and downtrodden, for the underdog in any given global conflict. “There is a strong emphasis on who’s strong and who’s weak in the European left, and particularly in Scandinavia,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. Since the 1970s, this feeling is accompanied by a strong dislike for what is perceived as colonialism, he added. “Israel is perceived as strong and ‘white,’ therefore it is perceived as wrong.”

As long as Israel conducted peace talks with the Palestinians, anti-Israel voices grew quieter, Rynhold explained. “It’s hard to argue against a negotiated solution. That’s like being against apple pie.” But since the last round of peace talks broke down this year with no results, the anti-Israel mood has begun to pick up steam once again, he said.

European standards

The people of the Nordic countries “don’t hate Jews; they’re not consciously anti-Semitic,” Rynhold stressed. “But Israel is held to different standard because Israel and Jews are part of European identity and political discourse.” Whatever happens in the Middle East has greater resonance than crises in Afghanistan or China, he added. “That is discriminatory, but they don’t see it as such.”

Many European countries focus disproportionally on Israel. But what is it about particularly the Nordic countries that causes them to show Israel the cold shoulder?

For one, their relatively small size allows them to take the lead on policies critical of Israel that are unprecedented in Europe, Rynhold suggested. Larger countries such as Germany, Great Britain or France “have to be more sober because they carry more weight.”

Still, there are other European countries with a strong pro-Palestinian stance, such as Ireland or Spain, and yet their governments rarely initiate moves hostile to Israel. Norway and Sweden especially are trailblazers in this area because they have long been “heavily invested” in the Middle East peace process, according to Rynhold. Everyone has heard about the Oslo Accords, but in the 1990s Stockholm, too, sponsored important talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Rabbi Michael Melchior (photo credit: Flash90)
Rabbi Michael Melchior (photo credit: Flash90)

And yet, relations between Israel and the Nordic countries should not be seen as exclusively negative, opined Rabbi Melchior, the Copenhagen-born former MK. “Norway has excellent relations with Israel,” he said. Oslo’s foreign minister recently visited Israel and had long and friendly discussions with the president, the prime minister and many other top officials, Melchior said. Likewise, when then-president Shimon Peres visited the Norwegian capital in May he was received like a king — including by King Harald V. “All of Oslo was full with Israeli flags,” Melchior recalled.

Of course that doesn’t mean that no anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiments exists, he acknowledged. This problem is especially acute in the trade unions, and that increases pressure on the governments, especially when left-wing parties come to power (as they did in Sweden this summer).

However, unlike in other European countries, there are almost no vocal groups in Scandinavia that deny Israel the right to exist in secure borders, Melchior said. While in Britain, France, Greece and Spain some influential organizations don’t argue about 1967 but about 1948, in the Nordic countries “people just want the occupation and the conflict to end and to achieve a just solution for the Palestinians.”

Israelis ought to understand that these states genuinely consider themselves friends of the Jewish state, Melchior urged. “We should see their position as a criticism of the fact that there are no peace talks taking place right now, and that Israel has no strategy to end the occupation.”

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