While other countries are giving up on the Middle East, Scandinavia still has it high on its agenda. Why?
In recent months many Israelis have become increasingly worried about Europe's attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latest troubling indication was a document obtained by the Israeli daily Haaretz outlining sanctions and other diplomatic steps considered by the EU against Israel.
This document is part of a wider trend. Lately, European governments have been criticizing Israeli policies, parliaments across the continent are discussing a unilateral recognition of Palestine, coverage in European media has been increasingly hostile and NGOs and academic institutions are not only filling Europe's squares with demonstrations, they're promoting boycotts and sanctions too.
The Scandinavian countries have been particularly active: a few weeks ago Sweden recognized Palestine, just before that Danish Foreign-Minister said Denmark may reconsider its trade agreements with Israel and there were massive demonstrations in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo against Israel's use of force in the recent Gaza conflict. Some of these were accompanied by violence against pro-Israel and Jewish targets.
These events give the impression that Scandinavia has become a center for the anti-Israel forces in Europe. Some Israelis even believe that anti-Semitic sentiments are overshadowing Scandinavia’s traditional friendship and support towards their country. But is this really the case?
The Scandinavian countries have been European leaders in terms of Foreign policy since the end of WW2. They are heavy contributors to the EU and UN, their politicians have moderated in many conflicts, their governments are generous donors to developing countries and they've led the way as moral authorities in many international issues such as the fight against Apartheid and the Vietnam War.
This has been true with the Israeli-Arab conflict too, from Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte’s involvement in the 1940s until Norway's part in the Oslo Accords. But what happens when there are no substantial peace talks to support, and both sides in this bloody conflict seem to be giving up on negotiating and falling into a new spiral of hatred and violence?
While other countries are giving up on the region, Sweden, Norway and Denmark still have it high on their agendas. They discuss it in every possible forum; they send millions of dollars for humanitarian aid, reconstruction and state building and their media keeps it in the headlines at all times. So much so that one may wonder why they're not giving up?
First there's the Scandinavian electorate. For most voters in Scandinavia foreign policy is much less important than domestic social and economic issues. But when foreign policy is discussed, especially regions far away, Scandinavians want to see foreign policy used to spread ideas, ideals and aid around the world rather than pursuing narrow national interests.
It's not true, as many claim, that forces as simple as a natural support of the underdog are at the heart of Scandinavian decision making processes. It's also wrong to assume that support for Arabs anywhere by Middle-Eastern immigrants in Scandinavia plays an important role. The first claim is too simplistic and the second makes no political sense. These days many conflicts in the Middle-East dominate Scandinavian headlines. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't more important than what's happening in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Middle-Eastern immigrants to Scandinavia have a multitude of religious and ethnic identities and hold different opinions, concerns and alliances. Israel isn't the devil in Scandinavian eyes. At least it's not the only devil.
It is however true that many Scandinavians see the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through moral rather than political eyes. Scandinavian politicians know this and sometimes use foreign policy as their moral alibi – they support the oppressed and victims of violence; they direct resources to the well-being of women and children and open their gates to refugees. This humanitarian aspect is an important side of Israel's image in Scandinavia.
Of course there's more to it than that. There's a wide network of commercial, military and scientific cooperation. Obviously this carries some weight in the political discourse but even as a leading start-up nation Israel needs its European partners more than they need it. It's not that the superstructure of the Israel-Scandinavian relationship doesn’t have a financial or trade orientated base; it's just that the base isn't wide enough to become the force driving foreign policy.
Still, understanding Scandinavian motives doesn't necessarily address Israeli concerns – is Scandinavia in effect anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, and if it is, should Israelis be worried by its influence on other EU countries?
The problem with these questions is that they're the wrong ones to ask. An updated, realistic view of the conflict shows that in terms of potential political solutions, it isn't between Jews and Arabs any more. At least it's not about their right to exist or their historical narratives. Putting aside apocalyptic scenarios, both sides are there to stay, living side by side on a small and extremely explosive piece of real-estate. The question is how to do it.
The current stage of the conflict is between the supporters of a one-state solution and a two-state one; both sides have Jewish and Arab supporters, both sides have left and right wings, both sides have religious and secular camps.
The one-state solution has models ranging from a modern secular "state of all its citizens" with no official national identity, to various models of bi-national states based on demographics – a country divided by cultural autonomies, a Jewish biblical kingdom, an Islamic Caliphate and various other nightmare scenarios.
The two-state solution is also a vague concept. The Oslo Accord's model was far from perfect but that doesn't matter much anymore since these days a two-state solution of any kind is a dying concept on both sides of the green line, and support for the complicated negotiations involved in achieving it is almost negligible.
This is where the Europeans come in. The real reason why Scandinavian policies worry many Israelis these days is not that they're anti-Israel; it's that they are in favour of a two-state solution.
Meeting in Stockholm at the end of October the leaders of the Nordic countries made it very clear. Although they had tactical differences (mainly about the question of the right timing for recognizing Palestine) there was a wide consensus. Like Cato the Elder, the Prime-Ministers and Foreign-Ministers of all the Nordic countries repeated the same mantra – a two-state solution is the only solution, and Israel must stop building in the occupied territories.
It's worthwhile, therefore, to consider the idea that Scandinavian countries are not driven by pro-Palestinian sentiments (even though they support the Palestinian right to self-recognition) or by anti-Semitism (though Scandinavians are certainly not immune to it). Rather, they see the conflict through ethical eyes of northern European democrats who also tend to have a practical and positive approach to politics. They see the two-state solution as the only political tool which can serve western democratic values and they're now pressing harder since the sides to the conflict are moving further away from it and retreating to pre-modern tribal clashes based on religion and ethnic identity.
This is also true in a wider European context. The EU non-paper containing potential sanctions against Israel is meant to be a response to Israeli measures which threaten the viability of a two-state solution. It's not a punishment for Israel's use of force in Gaza and it's not an acknowledgment of Palestinian arguments. It's a strong, almost desperate, call to the sides to return to the negotiation table and work towards a two-state solution.
Will these steps make a difference? It's hard to say since these are the last days of Israel's current government and the Palestinian Authority faces more hardship and internal conflict. Most observers agree the situation on the ground is getting worse while the world is losing interest. In these conditions those who still believe in co-existence of two modern national states should be encouraged by the statements from the old continent. These may sometimes be clumsy, awkward and unpleasant but the politicians who make them may be the last ones on the planet who still care.