Magnus Norell

Magnus Norell

Gaza, Israel, Palestinians, West Bank

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The governments of the European Union (EU), including Sweden, pride themselves on conducting foreign policy based at least in part on democratic and peaceful ideals, not just economic or political interests. Those ideals relate to universal principles of human rights, national self-determination, popular legitimacy, international law, and balanced conflict resolution. Putting these principles into practice, EU members claim, will provide the best and perhaps even the only long-term assurances against war, terrorism, and other forms of violent extremism. Applied to the Middle East, the EU in general, and Sweden in particular, have often focused this “principled” policy approach on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the latest twist in this story suggests that good intentions unevenly applied are more likely to backfire than to achieve the desired results.

In October, several events related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place in Europe. On October 13, the British House of Commons approved a non-binding resolution to recognize the state of Palestine. One day later, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that if peace negotiations failed, France would also recognize Palestine. The EU warned Israel that “certain actions across the Green Line” could have consequences for relations, including building in controversial areas in the West Bank. But this new European assertiveness was triggered by the Swedes, whose new prime minister, Stefan Löfven, declared in his inaugural speech to parliament on October 2, that Sweden would recognize the state of Palestine regardless of the results of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Approximately one month later Sweden went through with declaration.

This raised a few eyebrows in Stockholm. Consecutive Swedish governments have held the view that a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is the only viable way to reach a peace agreement. Moreover, Sweden has some criteria for recognizing new countries, one of which is that the entire territory must be ruled by a unified government, which is not the case with the Palestinians. The official rationale for the Swedish vote is that recognizing Palestine evens the playing field and bolsters the position of the Palestinians in any future negotiations.

Equally important is that this decision had more to do with internal Swedish politics than with the Palestinian cause per se. Prime Minister Löfven’s new government is weak and minority-led, consisting of the Social Democratic Party (the largest party in the parliament) and the Green Party. Foreign policy was not an issue in the elections in September and the new prime minister has all along been uncomfortable dealing with international issues. But for the Green Party and a small yet influential minority in the Social Democratic Party, the Palestine issue looms large. The Swedish minister of housing and urban development, Mehmet Kaplan, was on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara in May 2010. He has been close to various anti-Israel and anti-Jewish Islamist organizations in Sweden for many years. By recognizing Palestine, Löfven was probably trying to defuse an issue that otherwise could come back to haunt him. Furthermore, the somewhat off-handed way in which the whole affair was conducted is another sign that this was not a calculated move by the government but an easy way of showing a willingness to act decisively without having to pay too high a price for doing so.

But this actually backfired rather quickly. Israel withdrew its ambassador for consultations, thereby depriving Sweden of any role in future EU peace initiatives, which the Social Democrats have long cherished. Moreover, it actually strengthened the more hardline forces on the Palestinian side. In other words, this vote proved counterproductive. Its timing was also spectacularly bad, coming in the midst of a very tense period in Jerusalem.

Looking at the context in which this move was received, it was a bit like pouring fuel on a fire. The more unilateral moves that are pushed forward – and it is conceivable that Sweden’s recognition will not be the last within the EU – the more obstacles there will be in renewing serious negotiations, which is a stated goal of the EU. Thus Sweden’s shift on Palestine can reasonably be described as an exercise of democracy – but of Swedish democracy, with little real-world relation to the Middle East. It has little prospect of promoting either democratic ideals, or the related ones of fostering peaceful coexistence and combating extremism. It seems to favor abstract notions of national rights over practical peacemaking imperatives, and to disregard issues of Palestinian or Israeli democracy altogether. Of course, neither Sweden alone nor even the EU as a whole is likely to have a decisive role in advancing any of those ideals in the Arab-Israeli arena. Yet the influence they do have should be exercised with better regard for the delicate balance among those ideals, and among the parties in the region.

Magnus Norell is an adjunct scholar of The Washington Institute and a senior policy advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) in Brussels.

(Photo via Reuters)