by David Harris
JERUSALEM, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday kicked off a four-day visit to Europe to push
Israel's cases regarding the Palestinians and Iran. However, the publication of
a highly controversial article in a Swedish newspaper on the eve of his
departure has put a very different spin on the trip.
The tabloid Aftonbladet published a story last Monday
accusing Israeli soldiers of removing body parts from Palestinians who were
killed in combat.
Unusually united, Israeli spokespeople, politicians
and academics dismissed the allegation as preposterous, with the government
demanding a condemnation from the Swedish government for what they are terming a
Thus far Sweden has refused to condemn the article or
its author Donald Bostrom, arguing that freedom of press is a basic principle in
The affair is particularly sensitive as Stockholm
currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and its Foreign
Minister Carl Bildt is slated to visit Israel next month.
"The media in Sweden isn't anti-Semitic," according
to Freddy Eytan, an Israeli career diplomat, who served for many years in
The Swedes have simply bought the Palestinian
narrative completely, he added.
However, relations between the two countries were not
always like this, recalled Swedish investigative journalist Ola Karlsson, who is
currently working in Israel.
"If you were to ask a Swede in their 40s or 50s, then
the likelihood is that they or someone they know have volunteered on an Israeli
kibbutz," Karlsson said on Monday.
He said that as time passed and Sweden became more
socialist, particularly in the 1980s, it adopted an obviously more
pro-Palestinian stance, with local media appearing more anti-Israeli, adding
that there has been a large influx of Arabs to Sweden, which has also seemingly
played a role.
Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute for
Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, noted
that Sweden is not alone in being affected by its growing Muslim population.
"Israeli-European relations today are highly
influenced by European fears about the reactions of Muslims living in their
countries," Bar said.
On the diplomatic front, there is no allegation in
Israel of anti-Semitism on the part of Sweden and other European states or their
adoption of a deliberately anti-Israeli stance.
Europe has repeatedly made it clear that it supports
the peace process between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, which the
United States, Israel's most important ally, has vowed to help revive.
Perhaps the noticeable difference between Europe and
Washington is the language adopted in criticizing Israel when the latter does
something which the international community disapproves of. The United States
may use a word such as "unhelpful," while Brussels will be far more forthright.
In the first week of August, for example, the
European presidency issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the Israeli
eviction of two Arab families in Jerusalem:
"The Presidency of the European Union reiterates its
serious concern about the continued and unacceptable evictions... These actions
confirm a worrying trend that runs counter to the creation of an atmosphere
conducive to achieving a viable and credible solution to the conflict between
Israelis and Palestinians,"
Despite this type of rhetoric, Bar argued that
Netanyahu's visit to Europe is unlikely to have any influence at all on the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"It's very clear that Israeli-European relations are
not good...But Europe doesn't really play a role in the peace process, and in
any case there isn't a peace process right now," Bar said.
Bar believed that while the focus of the trip may has
originally been Iran, Netanyahu will now be trying to warn Europe not to become
complacent about anti-Semitism.
Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Britain and Germany,
both of which are relatively sympathetic to Israel's Middle Eastern narrative,
as compared to many other European countries. Germany, in particular, is likely
to be supportive of Netanyahu's message regarding anti-Semitism.
The visit and the broader issues of the Palestinians
and Iran are of particular importance right now. Next month, world leaders will
assemble for the annual opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations,
and the United States is hoping for progress on both of these issues by the
commencement of the gathering.
U.S. President Barack Obama is hoping that by then
there will be international consensus on the way forward with Iran. Washington
has given Tehran until September to respond to its invitation to join
negotiations. Should the Islamic republic say no, it would likely face further
At the same time, the president hopes that his
special Middle East envoy George Mitchell will be able to reach agreement with
the Israelis over a freeze of settlement activity. The Palestinians have made
this a precondition to returning to the negotiating table.
Netanyahu is expected to meet Mitchell in London on
Wednesday. While both sides are trying to play down expectations from this
particular session, the media is filled with speculations that an agreement on
the issue is at hand.
The Europeans have made clear their backing for the
Palestinian and American demand for an immediate cessation of Israeli
construction work in the West Bank. Israel is allegedly ready to offer a
six-month building moratorium, while some Israeli reports suggest that the
United States is looking for a two-year commitment.
However, both in Israel and in Europe, public opinion
is far more vocal in expressing mistrust. Israelis freely speak of their
generalized belief that Europeans are anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian, while
many Europeans strongly condemn Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
Much of this sentiment is fanned by the media,
according to Eytan, saying that the current "blood libel" story as it is being
dubbed in Israel was published by a sensationalist paper looking to sell copies.
While papers can print what they want in free
countries, they have a responsibility to publish the truth, said Eytan, adding
that this standard must also be applied in Israel.
"We can't tell them to stop, but they must show
sensitivity," said Eytan, who believed there must be a clear distinction between
"mercantile" journalism and quiet diplomacy between states.