Mose Apelblat

On Israel, refugees and foreign policy, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy seems to have swallowed the Swedish self-assessment of being a ‘humanitarian’ super-power.

In his article “Sweden, my love” in Haaretz (November 18th), Gideon Levy depicts two morally opposite countries: Sweden, “the closest thing there is today to a model state”, and Israel, an occupying state which “brutally expels refugees” and only can “dream about the social services” in Sweden. Levy takes Israel, “driven crazy with Sweden’s morality,” to task for daring to teach Sweden a lesson.

For years I have been a keen reader of Levy’s Twilight Zone series on the violations of the human rights of Palestinians living under Israel occupation. His articles are difficult to read. He describes cases of discrimination, abuses and assaults, where the standard official Israeli reaction is that “we are investigating the case.” For me he is an experienced investigative journalist with a moral conscience. Israel needs his journalism more than ever.

I was therefore surprised to read his article where Sweden is idealized, put beyond any moral reproach, and its foreign minister described as a “principled minister” who only speaks truth to Israel.

Levy knows very well that countries do change. Israel has become a country with growing socio-economic gaps, corruption in all spheres of society, illiberal legislation and an occupation that has become permanent. The country has been taken hostage by the settlement lobby. But Sweden has also changed. It is not any longer the admired social-democratic welfare-state it used to be in the 70’s.

Levy’s image of Sweden is outdated. Part of Sweden’s welfare has been dismantled or privatized – as in Israel. Social services such as education and health care have deteriorated. The tax system has lost its redistributive power on incomes and inequality is growing – almost as quickly as in Israel.

In recent years Sweden has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. However, it has failed in integrating them into the labor market which is characterized by structural racism. Migration hostels and mosques are frequently attacked and put on fire. In a backlash against immigration, the far right-wing nationalist Sweden Democrats party received 13% of the votes in the elections in 2014.

Sweden has also just realized that it has been too generous in accepting migrants, and that it cannot cope any longer with the recent months’ influx. Last week, the government announced that it needed a “respite” from the flow of refugees and would adapt the asylum rules to the EU’s “minimum level”, only issuing temporary residence permits to asylum seekers – almost as is done in Israel.

The incident that provoked Levy to write his article was Israel’s protest against Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström’s statement in a recent Swedish TV interview on the terror attacks in Paris. Asked whether she was worried about radicalization of young people in Sweden fighting for the Islamic State (ISIS), she replied that there was reason for concern both in Sweden and around the world. She continued:

“There are so many who become radicalized. And here again, you come back to situations like the one in the Mid-East, where not the least the Palestinians see that there is no future for us: we must either accept a desperate situation or take to violence.”

The Israeli government over-reacted as usual and accused Sweden of linking the terror attacks in Paris to the Israeli occupation. Nothing can of course be further from the truth. The French president Francois Hollande, declaring that “France is at war” with ISIS, said it clearly: The attacks “had been planned in Syria, organized in Belgium, perpetrated on our soil with French complicity”.

The only common denominator is, as Levy himself writes, that “that there is a link between despair and terror.” He could, of course, have added that in all terror attacks, irrespective of where they occur, innocent civilians are the victims. But the causes and circumstances of terror in Israel and in France are totally different and both the Israeli and Swedish governments should take note.

Paris was attacked by militant Islamists who were inspired by the extremist ideology of IS which is trying to establish a medieval caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Now IS is expanding the war to European countries where it is supported by local Islamists who have been trained in Syria. Sweden, from where about 300 people are estimated to have travelled to Syria to join IS, can very well become next target.

The Islamic State is the enemy of both Israel and Europe and must be defeated. But there ends the comparison. Israel is not in same boat as Europe. The current terror wave in Israel and the occupied territories has nothing to do with the Islamic State and its ideology. It is fueled by irresponsible incitement about Al Aqsa, the on-going occupation and the sense of despair. For the terror to subdue, there must be hope in a better future. The peace process must restart.

Even if Sweden really was a “model state”, as Levy thinks, there can’t be any ban on criticizing its foreign policy. Levy seems to have swallowed the Swedish self-assessment of being a “humanitarian” super-power. Hardly any country acts on solely humanitarian grounds with disregard for its national interests.

Sweden itself has never done it – neither during the Second World War, when it exported iron ore to Nazi Germany and suppressed reports on the Holocaust, nor during the post-war period, when it continued to export arms to dictatorships, a policy that continues to the present day, for example arms exports to Saudi Arabia despite its on-going air strikes against Yemen.

Swedish hypocrisy in foreign affairs was also expressed when the Armenian genocide was commemorated on April 24 this year. The same Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, issued a statement where the genocide was not mentioned by name. Instead the Swedish government called for a ”review on how we define and relate to historic mass violence.”

Following a diplomatic fall-out with Saudi Arabia, which had cancelled a speech by Wallström to the Arab League, the Swedish government clearly decided it could not afford to antagonize Turkey as well.

Despite all of the above, I believe that Wallström is a true friend of Israel, expressing both criticism and empathy (as can be seen in her recent article in Haaretz, “From Sweden, Looking Toward Israel with Friendly Concern”). But she has a tendency for undiplomatic, unfounded and confusing statements. In his naïve perception of Sweden, Levy overreacted this time in her defense – as did also the Israeli government, in their offense.

(A version of this article was published in Haaretz on November 25)

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