x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Sweden's foreign minister cancels Israel visit

Sweden's foreign minister has abruptly called off a visit to Israel amid a feud over a Swedish newspaper article.

JERUSALEM // Sweden's foreign minister abruptly called off a visit to Israel this week, an Israeli spokesman said, amid a feud over a Swedish newspaper article and a growing gulf between Israel and the international community over West bank settlement construction. The foreign minister Carl Bildt has called off a trip to Israel planned for this Friday, according to Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. Mr Palmor, who would not comment on a possible reason for the move, said Sweden informed Israel's embassy in Stockholm of the decision on Friday. The Swedish decision came the same day the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew international condemnation for deciding to approve hundreds of new apartments in West Bank settlements in defiance of US, European and Palestinian calls for a total settlement freeze. Sweden holds the rotating European Union presidency. But the cancellation also followed a diplomatic feud between Israel and Sweden over an article in a Swedish tabloid that accused Israeli soldiers of harvesting organs from dead Palestinians and suggested a connection with an international organ trafficking ring run by Jews. Israeli officials condemned the article as anti-Semitic. Swedish officials denied a connection between the cancellation and the newspaper article, but offered differing explanations for Mr Bildt's decision not to come. Anna Brodin, the political officer at the Swedish consulate in Jerusalem, said Mr Bildt has put off his visit in the hope Mideast peacemaking would progress during the UN General Assembly later this month. "It has been delayed until after the General Assembly in New York, when there might be more substance in the process," Ms Brodin said. Israel and the Palestinians have indicated that Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas could hold a first meeting during the UN gathering. But in Stockholm, Mr Bildt's spokeswoman Irena Busic denied the foreign minister had cancelled a trip to Israel, saying a date had never been set. Now was not a good time for such a trip, she said, citing logistical reasons and the "situation in the peace process." Both Swedish officials denied the article in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet had anything to do with Mr Bildt's travel plans. Mr Netanyahu demanded that Sweden denounce the article, headlined, "Our sons are plundered for their organs". But the Swedish government rebuffed Israeli calls for an official condemnation, citing freedom of the press. "Freedom of expression and press freedom are very strong in our constitution by tradition. And that strong protection has served our democracy and our country well," Mr Bildt wrote in his blog after the controversy erupted. The article provoked a flap inside Sweden's own Foreign Ministry after its ambassador to Israel published a condemnation of the article only to be reprimanded by her superiors for doing so.

*AP