(This is an English translation of the blog post in Swedish ”Det verkliga Israel” published on this blog on February 13th 2016)
A lot has already been said about the Swedish government’s Middle East policy and I will not get dug down in my past criticism of it. After spending a couple of days in Israel together with colleagues from the European Parliament, I would like however to underline a clear observation; The Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström’s anti-Israeli statements have damaged the image of Sweden more than we so far have realized.
That the Israeli government´s representatives, parliamentarians and media began speaking about a flaring diplomatic crisis is one thing, but when the general public and ideological supporters of Wallström react in the same way it illustrates the seriousness of the situation. In fact, Sweden’s reputation has been destroyed as a result of Wallström´s actions and some of the foremost critics are her own Social Democratic Party friends in the Israeli Labour Party.
In the meetings and conversations that I participated in, both in the Parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish government’s actions have been a recurring topic. This was clearly expressed in Knesset’s Vice President, Social Democrat Nachman Shai, who explained that Margot Wallström not only has hurt her own image, but also Israel´s:
”What we are talking about is a terrible mistake. Tell her that we are hoping for a quick generation shift in Swedish Social democracy.”
Alongside this debacle, Israeli domestic politics are dominated by the country’s security situation. A special focus is of course on the Palestinian attacks against innocent civilians, attacks who are currently spreading terror among the population. Since the wave of terror began last year, over a hundred attacks have been conducted in which around thirty people have been killed and hundreds injured.
The functions of fundamental social institutions is being challenged and people’s daily lives have been limited. What previously was easy suddenly became impossible. At the same time, I was impressed by how well the society seems to work, how people’s concerns are taken care of and how quickly the necessary political decisions and measures have been taken. The handling of national crises in Israel is part of normality.
The security challenge is constantly present, and it also applies to the neighbouring countries, regionally and globally. Israel is surrounded by more or less hard line, hostile dictatorships ruling over their 450 million inhabitants. In addition a number of militant terrorist organizations are currently operating in Israel’s immediate vicinity; Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Sinai. All sharing the expressed purpose to destroy Israel.
This is relevant and important to recall in a political context where Israel is often portrayed as the stronger and militarily superior party. This is of course correct in relation to the Palestinians but in a broader perspective the country is in a vulnerable position facing the surrounding dictatorships and terror organizations.
After days of political discussions, meetings and field trips, I can conclude not only that the outside world´s perceptions of Israel’s security situation is at odds with reality. In the Swedish and European context it is almost only the occupation and the settlements that are discussed, which makes the picture incomplete. Other major events and phenomena are neglected or silenced.
People interested in foreign policy and media consumers seldom get to see the true Israel. A country with successful enterprises, entrepreneurship, research and education with empathetic and involved citizens.
Let me mention some of these citizens – people who daily are involved in shaping the Israeli society. Recently I met them in their different situations and places:
Salman Zarka, doctor at the Ziv hospital in Safed near the border with Lebanon and Syria. For years he has been responsible for projects treating victims of the civil war in Syria. Often the patients are people who were rescued by Israeli army patrols in the border areas.
When I met Salman Zarka he explained that the main focus is treating seriously injured and traumatized patients – both soldiers and civilians. So far, he and his team have been able to save the lives of 580 severely injured people out of the total of 3000 war wounded Syrians who so far have received care in Israeli hospitals.
”Most of them have learned at an early stage to see Israel as the worst enemy. But as a doctor and human being, it is my job to save lives, regardless of nationality”.
Gad Moshe Yarkony, Mayor in Eshkol in southern Israel. Born and raised on the Kibbutz Nirim, just a few kilometres from the border with Gaza, Yarkony lived for many years under attacks from Palestinian terrorist groups. In the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas he served in the Israeli army when a Palestinian rocket attack changed his life. Two of his closest friends were killed in the attack that also wounded himself. Hit by shrapnel both his legs are today amputated.
”The attack took place on the last day of the war. But I made a decision; to survive and work for peace with the Palestinians. From my hospital bed, I announced my candidacy for mayor.”
Yehuda Cohen, head of the Lipski company in Ariel in the West Bank. For several years Lipski is one of the leading manufacturers of plastic products in the region. The company is profitable, sales are steadily increasing and 20 per cent of what is produced is exported to Europe.
Half of Lipskis over a hundred employees are Israelis, half of them Palestinians. Yehuda Cohen said that staff turnover is low, and wages and employment conditions are the same for Palestinians and Israelis.
”For me, this job is a peace project. The owner of the company is considering moving the production because of the uncertainty regarding the EU’s decision on labelling of goods from the occupied territories. If so, I will not follow, since I want to continue working for coexistence with the Palestinians.”
Israel, like all countries is neither perfect nor flawless. But in all its simplicity, the meetings with Salman Zarka, Gad Moshe Yarkony and Yehuda Cohen, however complete the widely recognized and unfortunately one sided negative picture of the Middle East’s only democracy.
It’s time for that picture to change.