Israeli-Swedish Row Heats Up

JERUSALEM – It’s not so much the proverbial making a mountain out of a molehill, but Israel finds itself climbing out of a stinky dung heap and onto a slippery diplomatic minefield.

The new story began with a story – by all accounts a false, libelous, and unsubstantiated news report emanating from the occupied Palestinian territories.

The report last week by a freelance reporter in the tabloid Aftonbladet, Sweden’s biggest-selling daily, claimed that Israeli soldiers have for years been snatching Palestinian youths and returning their dismembered bodies a few days later, having harvested their organs for transplant purposes. The paper quoted Palestinian families as saying that such incidents date as far back as 1992.

Israel, official and public, was outraged at what is seen here as an abomination of "blood libel" in the vein of the worst historical anti-Semitic falsehoods.

The Swedish ambassador in Tel Aviv, Elisabet Borsin Bonnier, issued an immediate condemnation, calling the article "shocking and appalling." But in Stockholm, the government dismissed the ambassador’s remarks as being for "local Israeli consumption" and declined to reiterate the condemnation.

Despite the banner headlines, the story might well have disappeared into the mists of summer apathy but for a furious Israeli reaction at the highest level.

At the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman launched a broadside against Stockholm. "It is regrettable that the Swedish foreign ministry does not intervene when it comes to a blood libel against Jews. This reminds one of Sweden’s conduct during World War II, when it also did not intervene [against the Nazis]," Lieberman fumed.

Lieberman was quick to draw a comparison with the row some two years ago when cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were deemed offensive in many parts of the Muslim world and triggered wide-scale anti-Danish protests that often turned violent.

Lieberman said the Swedish government was not at all reticent then and had actually appealed to Denmark to take appropriate measures to calm the anger rampant around the Muslim world.

The organ-harvesting story has quickly escalated into a full-blown diplomatic affair, collaterally strengthening the sense of the besieged national self among Swedes and Israelis alike.

Israeli reporters dispatched to Stockholm quote the president of the local Jewish community, Lena Posner, as saying that "the preposterous Israeli demand for a Swedish government condemnation has changed the debate from anti-Semitism to a question of freedom of speech."

"Instead of debunking the story, it is now all about freedom of speech, which in Sweden is sacrosanct," said Posner.

Slightly more diplomatic than his undiplomatic foreign minister, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was not expecting an official apology from the Swedish government but he did expect a "condemnation."

Netanyahu has not spoken out on whether the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, should be encouraged to cancel an official visit to Israel that is set to begin Sept. 10. Other leading ministers have had no qualms about doing so: "Anyone unwilling to condemn such a blood libel should be considered unwelcome," said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Sweden currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union and is thus centrally placed to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are now just getting going.

Bildt himself has steadfastly refused to issue the criticism demanded by Netanyahu. Instead, in his blog, the Swedish foreign minister noted that hate crimes, including incitement to anti-Semitism, are against the law in Sweden, and that his country is among the few to have passed such special legislation against anti-Semitism.

The Israeli media, right and left, has expressed dismay at what is described as the turning of "a dung heap" into a bewildering diplomatic incident.

"Lieberman’s impassioned and demagogic reaction has damaged Israel. It has cheapened the Holocaust, blown the article out of proportion, and caused an international uproar, pushing Sweden into an unnecessary confrontation with Israel," wrote the liberal Ha’aretz in its editorial Sunday.

"Lieberman must understand that freedom of the press exists in Sweden – for both good journalism and bad – and that, just as in Israel, the government does not dictate what is published," Ha’aretz said.

Even the right-wing Jerusalem Post, though more attuned to Lieberman’s hard-line nationalist views, has misgivings about the strident tone of the official counter-campaign.

"If Israelis have overreacted to this mendacious twaddle, it’s because anti-Semitic blood libels have had deadly consequences for our people ever since Greek pagans first accused ancient Jews of kidnapping foreigners for sacrificial purposes," the paper wrote. "The Nazis brought the defamation into the 20th century via Der Stuermer. Now Aftonbladet has the distinction of keeping the lie alive in 21st-century Europe. Still, perhaps the official reaction has been over the top."

It’s difficult to find Israelis not distraught at the scurrilous Aftonbladet account. But liberal Israelis are disturbed that the commotion about a baseless charge in fact risks legitimizing those who would delegitimize Israel.

In their view, the Israeli campaign has had the dispiriting effect of causing the Israeli public – even those critical of the essence of Israel’s policy in the occupied Palestinian territories – to close ranks in face of a world perceived as intrinsically hostile to them.

Both Netanyahu and Lieberman are past masters at exploiting this sentiment of fear and sense of victimization among Jews and Israelis.

In turn, by boosting a sense of national self-righteousness, the Netanyahu government believes it can consolidate public backing for its obdurate political positions, like standing up, at this critical time, to the growing international demand for a reversal of Israel’s aggressive settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.