Israeli officials have a blunt message for Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister: You are not welcome here.
"We decline to host the Swedish foreign minister in Israel," Tzipi Hotovely, Israel's deputy foreign minister, told reporters on Wednesday. "The State of Israel is closing its doors to official Swedish visits." An Israeli spokesman later clarified that the move did not apply to all Swedish officials, just the foreign minister. "It's just Margot Wallstrom," Emmanuel Nahshon told the Swedish news agency TT.
Wallstrom had been due to visit Israel on Thursday to attend an event in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who saved tens of thousands of Jews during World War II, but the trip was canceled at the last minute. The Swedish Foreign Ministry says there was a scheduling conflict, though Swedish Radio News reports that Israeli officials had refused to meet with her.
Israel's public rejection of Wallstrom is a response to comments made by the Swedish foreign minister about allegations that Israeli forces had carried out extrajudicial killings during recent clashes with Palestinians. “It is vital that there are thorough, credible investigations into these deaths in order to clarify and bring about possible accountability,” she had told Swedish lawmakers on Tuesday.
At least 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since mid-September. These deaths come as Israel has been gripped by a fresh wave of violence, with seemingly random knife attacks by Palestinians on Israelis occurring virtually every day. In response, Israeli politicians and police officers have openly called for Israeli civilians to carry weapons. Human rights groups say their messages amount to a call for extrajudicial killings.
The Swedish foreign minister had previously commented on the risk of extrajudicial killings, in December, prompting a rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "It seems she expects Israel's citizens to bare their throats to those trying to stab them," Netanyahu said in comments to his cabinet that were broadcast on Israeli television. He reiterated this criticism in a meeting with foreign journalists on Thursday, dubbing Wallstrom's comments "outrageous, immoral and stupid."
The allegations of extrajudicial killings are just the latest problem between Wallstrom and Israel, and they are just one of a number of disputes the Swedish foreign minister has found herself embroiled in since entering office in October 2014. Sweden has been pursuing what has been called a "feminist foreign policy" since then – one that has led to notable diplomatic spats with Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
The issue with Israel arose almost immediately after Wallstrom took office as part of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's new center-left government, when Sweden officially recognized the state of Palestine. In response, Israel recalled its ambassador, and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that the Middle East is “more complicated than a piece of furniture from Ikea,” which was founded in Sweden. Wallstrom had shot back: “I will be happy to send Israel FM Lieberman an Ikea flat pack to assemble. He'll see it requires a partner, cooperation and a good manual.”
Lieberman, now out of government, raised the Ikea analogy again after the latest dispute with Wallstrom. “I’m not calling to sever relations with Sweden, but I do recommend that everyone stop shopping at Ikea; there are enough Israeli-made products," the chairman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu said, according to the Maariv newspaper. Lieberman also added that Sweden had "gained most of its wealth" by trading with Nazi Germany. "It knew about the refugee camps, about Auschwitz and about Buchenwald, and that the gold in which they were being paid had been robbed from Jews," he said. "Sweden is a country that only cares about its own money and wealth."
Israel had also expressed outrage at comments made by Wallstrom in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November. The Swedish foreign minister had suggested that there was a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and radicalism in the West. Calling the comments "appallingly imprudent," Nahshon had said that Wallstrom demonstrated a "genuine hostility when she points to a connection of any kind between the terror attacks in Paris and the complex situation between Israel and the Palestinians."
For now, Israel's Foreign Ministry has stopped short of cutting off full relations with Sweden, but it has now twice summoned Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser to express anger at Wallstrom's comments. According to reports in the Israeli press, Nesser was told that Sweden would be excluded from any role related to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Exactly what that will mean in practice isn't clear. YNetNews reports that the Israeli Foreign Ministry now say it refers only to projects Sweden was promoting in Palestinian territories. However, it does appear to be a confirmation of what was already widely suspected: Sweden's recognition of Palestine and criticism of Israel may sideline it in the Middle East peace negotiations, which it has long supported.
As Per Jonsson, a Middle East expert at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told WorldViews in October: “Sweden has definitely taken a back seat in the Israel-Palestine conflict since now one of the parties — Israel — won't listen to it."
Ruth Eglash contributed reporting from Israel.
More on WorldViews