Only hours after taking office on Oct. 3, new Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made his first major foreign policy announcement, and it could hardly have been more spectacular. In his inaugural speech to the Swedish parliament, the Social Democrat said that “the conflict between Israel and Palestine can only be solved with a two-state solution” and that “a two-state solution requires mutual recognition and a will to peaceful co-existence. Sweden will therefore recognize the state of Palestine.” Should Löfven’s declaration — which requires only a decision by his minority government and does not need to go to a parliamentary vote — become reality, Sweden would become the first country to recognize Palestine while a member of the European Union.
Responses from Israel and the United States were swift and predictable. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Sweden’s “unilateral” decision would harm the peace process, and a former Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, claimed that the Social Democrats were “anti-Israel” and that the influx of Muslim immigrants to Sweden in recent years influenced the new administration’s position. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki claimed that while the U.S. supported Palestinian statehood, “We believe international recognition of a Palestinian state is premature.”
When told of the U.S. response, Löfven said that recognition of Palestine was an important component for driving discussions forward and that Sweden’s new position should hardly have come as a surprise. The new Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström dismissed any suggestion of an anti-Israel sentiment in Sweden and was pointed in her response to the U.S. critique, saying, “The USA doesn’t decide our policy.”
With this proclamation, the new administration in Stockholm has achieved two things. First, Löfven has broken with the previous, conservative administration’s foreign policy, spearheaded by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Widely recognized as a staunch and loyal U.S. ally, Bildt wrote a New York Times op-ed giving de facto support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he did little during his eight years in office to rub the United States the wrong way. When it came to Israel, he was criticized in Sweden for his reluctance to offer a categorical condemnation of the massive loss of civilian life in Gaza as the result of Israeli bombardment. By declaring its intention to recognize Palestine, the new administration has demonstrated a willingness, right off of the bat, to buck the United States. In addition to the position on Palestine, Löfven announced that Sweden would not seek membership in NATO.
Second, the proposed recognition of Palestine is, for some, a return to Sweden’s social democratic foreign policy roots. A willingness to confront the use of oppressive power by the United States — such as then–Prime Minister Olof Palme condemning the U.S. for “war crimes” in Vietnam — and to side with the weak were considered hallmarks of Swedish foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s. While a number of these elements remain, Swedish foreign policy lost a great deal of this reputation in recent years. A traditional supporter of Palestine and Palestinian rights, Sweden’s stance on this issue changed in recent years as the administration of Fredrik Reinfeldt refused to recognize the Palestinian state. In 2011, Sweden was one of only 14 countries, including the United States, to vote against Palestinian membership in UNESCO.
While Löfven’s decision attempts to return Sweden’s position on Palestine to its previous progressivism, the move also attempts to correct what is an increasingly damaged Swedish image abroad. The fact that the far-right Sweden Democrats garnered 13 percent of last month’s national vote shook both Swedes and international observers. Generally speaking, while not known for their self-promotion, Swedes are happy to voice pride in their country’s global reputation for tolerance and openness. Under the previous conservative government, Sweden accepted more Syrian refugees per capita than any other country in Europe, by a significant margin. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its aftermath, one town in Sweden, Södertälje, accepted more Iraqi refugees than the U.S. and Canada combined. Yet this image of Sweden has been eclipsed by news that the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing populist party with roots in neo-Nazism, was now the third largest in the country. Many observers are now asking whether the Swedish model of tolerance is eroding, so a recognition of Palestine could go some way to remind the international community of Sweden’s progressive past.
What the Swedish decision will mean for relations with the U.S. and Israel is unclear. President Barack Obama is approaching the end of his term, and it is highly unlikely that any successor, whether Republican or Democrat, will ever alter the U.S. position on Israel. The new Swedish government has, nevertheless, engaged in meaningful geopolitical symbolism. Sweden is in no way a major international power, nor, for all of its relative wealth, is Sweden a major global economic force. Yet its declaration to recognize Palestine is a powerful move that challenges other EU members that have toed a common policy line on Israel and Palestine for years.
Senior Palestinian politicians have described Sweden’s decision as “courageous and remarkable.” The decision also indicates that Sweden is, perhaps, returning to a foreign policy that is not afraid to deviate from a U.S.-dominated status quo. For those who believe that true democracy is best served by questioning and challenging the status quo, this can only be a good thing.