Many observers were surprised by the sudden announcement by the newly elected prime minister of Sweden that his country would become the first in the European Union to formally recognize the "State of Palestine."
The announcement by Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, which stipulated that his new government would eventually recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, was inappropriate on a number of levels. First, it is contrary to longstanding E.U. foreign policy. Second, it appears to reward the intransigence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which was on full display in his recent speech at the United Nations. Mr. Abbas' overheated rhetoric only contributes to discouraging the possibility of resuming negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
But Sweden's decision was much less surprising if one considers the state of deteriorating relations between Sweden and Israel, which in recent years have triggered tremors along a growing fault line in Swedish society between more moderate forces and the radical left.
It should be said upfront here that the bilateral relationship between Israel and Sweden remains vitally important, and that even with this potential change in policy there are still opportunities to move forward diplomatically.
Complicated factors are at play in Swedish politics and society, and these are clearly influencing its foreign policy. Zvi Mazel, who served as Israeli ambassador to Stockholm between 2002 and 2004, outlined some of those factors in recent interviews in the Israeli press.
Lofven, he noted, only won the election with 43 percent of the vote, and needs to form a minority government that has the support of the formerly communist left-wing party, which has strident anti-Israel proclivities and whose supporters are primarily Arab and Muslim Swedish citizens. Muslims now comprise about 8 percent of Sweden's population after the country absorbed more than 80,000 immigrants from Syria and Iraq this year alone.
As a result, says Mazel, Lofven is seeking support and public sympathy by playing "the Israel card."
Two of Lofven's cabinet appointments are troubling as well. They are individuals well known for their enthusiastic support for the Palestinian cause and who were deported from Israel because of their activities.
According to a report in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, the new city planning and environment minister, Mehmet Kaplan, a native of Turkey and a former spokesman for the Muslim Council of Sweden, was involved in the Mavi Marmara incident in which passengers on the Gaza-bound ship violently attacked Israeli naval personnel in 2010. And the new education minister, Gustav Fridolin, was arrested and deported from Israel in 2003 for encouraging demonstrations against the security fence between the West Bank and Israel.
Moreover, highly publicized spats between Israel and Sweden in recent years have widened the rift between these two countries that otherwise share many of the same democratic values and a strong bilateral relationship.
Most memorably, in August 2009 the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet published a false and malicious report that Israeli soldiers were harvesting organs from Palestinians. The report mushroomed into a full-blown global conspiracy theory and led to a diplomatic row when Sweden rejected Israel's request to condemn the false report, citing "press freedom."
Earlier that year a mob descended on a stadium where an Israeli team was playing against Sweden, with protestors carrying signs condemning Israel and threatening to attack Israeli athletes.
There have also been troubling anti-Semitic attacks reported in the country this year, taking place before and after Israel's operation in Gaza. In March, a high school in Stockholm which holds classes for Jewish students was spray painted with anti-Semitic graffiti, including a swastika, the phrases "Jewish swine" and disgusting Jews." In July, the city of Malmo's main synagogue was attacked when vandals hurled bottles at the building, breaking three windows. And in August, a rabbi in Malmo was attacked by a group of men who threw a glass bottle at his car while shouting anti-Semitic epithets.
At the same time, the country has high levels of education and a very low acceptance for traditional anti-Semitic beliefs.
The recent ADL Global 100 Survey found that only 4 percent of the adult population in Sweden is infected with anti-Semitic attitudes, the lowest finding for Europe. This amounts to just 300,000 people out of a total population of 7.4 million people. Compared with other countries in Europe (France was 37 percent, Norway and Finland, 15 percent) this was a remarkably low score.
And here is where the issues of Israeli policies and the anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence in Sweden can get enmeshed. Politicians and journalists who espouse virulently anti-Israel messages, contribute to an atmosphere which provides a patina of acceptability and cover for anti-Jewish hate to emerge. While 96 percent of Swedish adults do not harbor strong anti-Semitic attitudes, the small percentage who do are likely among the ones acting on those beliefs and doing it under the guise of expressing opposition to Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
It is up to Sweden's political, religious and civic leaders to make clear to the people of Sweden that anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence against the Jewish population are never acceptable expressions of criticism of Israel's policies. Prime Minister Lovfen should be the one to set an example in this regard, not allowing politics to trump the government's responsibility to ensure the well-being and security of Sweden's small but vibrant Jewish community.
Sweden's premature recognition of the State of Palestine will have repercussions far beyond Scandinavia. Sweden is considered a flag-bearer of human rights, and many countries across Europe respond to its cues. The risk is that other countries in the E.U. may soon want to follow suit.
The U.S., the international community, and the global Jewish community need to convince Sweden that this is the wrong position at the wrong time.
If Sweden is truly concerned about improving the situation for the Palestinian people, they should be working hard to support international efforts to prevent Hamas from replenishing its supply of missiles and rockets and to promote the restoration of housing and infrastructure for the people of Gaza.
The time for recognizing a Palestinian state will come when the Palestinian leadership shows it is fully committed to living in peace and security in a state side by side with Israel and the parties reach an agreement through direct bilateral negotiations resolving all the issues between them.