Margot Wallström and criticism of Israel

Margot Wallström and criticism of Israel
7 min read
05 Feb, 2016
Comment: People with a public history of fighting injustice will no longer be silenced by distorted, false and distracting claims of anti-Semitism, writes Vijay Prashad.
The Swedish Foreign Minister made strong remarks against the “extrajudicial executions” of Palestinians [AFP]

For a day, Israel decided to close Ramallah. That is to say, the Israeli military closed its checkpoints surrounding the largest city in the occupied West Bank, and decided to imprison its people. That's it. No exit.

Is Palestine occupied? Yes, and this is one of the pieces of evidence of occupation. The occupying power - with absolute impunity - choked off Palestine's most major city. This is collective punishment.

For those who do not keep a copy of the Geneva Conventions handy, collective punishment is a war crime (article 33 of the 1949 Conventions). But the international community is so leaden on Palestine that there will be no arms raised in any major meeting, no outrage. This is just what it is.

When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon give a mild speech rebuking the Israeli government for its harsh occupation policy against the Palestinians, the Israeli political class went after him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Ban had given a "tailwind to terror" - meaning he had encouraged terrorism. This is typically incendiary language from Netanyahu. It pushed Ban to respond in the New York Times, with a headline that told the story - Don't Shoot the Messenger, Israel (1 February).

The substance of the opinion piece was not unusual. But the essence of it was important: "When heartfelt concerns about shortsighted or morally damaging policies emanate from so many sources, including Israel's closest friends, it cannot be sustainable to keep lashing out at every well-intentioned critic."

Well, why not, especially when they don't seem to mind?

Take the case of Ambassador Dan Shapiro, a close adviser to US President Barack Obama and - until recently - a close friend of Netanyahu. At a conference in Tel Aviv on 18 January, Shapiro made some anodyne remarks.

"At times it seems Israel has two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank - one for Israelis and one for Palestinians," he said.

He went on to say that the United States was "concerned and perplexed" by the Israelis' settlement policy.

Shapiro, in fact, had been shy in his criticism

The reaction to Shapiro's statement was swift. Netanyahu's close aide Aviv Bushinsky called Shaprio a yehudoni ["a little Jew boy", a terrible derogatory slur]. But the United States did not make much of this kind of talk.

The Israeli Ambassador in Washington was not called in to the US State Department to be warned. Nothing.

Shapiro, in fact, had been shy in his criticism. Israel's double standards are not applied "at times", but at all times - such as in the seemingly arbitrary closure of Ramallah; the US is not "perplexed" by the settlement policy, but many in Washington know it is illegal.

That is why the United States has informed importers that products from settlements should not be labelled "Made in Israel". This was on the books of US Customs since 1995, but on 23 January they sent out a notification of enforcement.

The United States has now indicated that it will be on high alert over settlement products. Although, it should be said, there has been almost no media attention on this - it was slipped in quietly in a customs notification that few read.

Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, made strong remarks of the "extrajudicial executions" of Palestinians over these past few months - the death toll from this sort of killing has now reached 130 since November.

Israeli politicians immediately attacked her, calling her remarks anti-Semitic. Most dangerously, Zvi Zameret, a former government official, wrote in Makor Rishon (22 January) that Wallström should meet the same end as her countryman, Count Folke Bernadotte, assassinated by the Stern Gang in 1948.

Wallström had planned to visit Israel for a seminar in honour of Raoul Wallenberg in Tel Aviv. Israel's officials refused to meet her, which meant she would have to come as a private citizen with no security precautions.

Sweden would not allow this, since the threat of assassination had been made. Wallström had to forgo her visit.

Sweden had not only been an early country to recognise Palestine as a state, but it also welcomed a Palestinian embassy - the first in Western Europe. Israel's attack on its foreign minister will not endear it to the Swedish people.

Germany's Die Linke (the Left) party has also had a difficult time laying out a straightforward politics on Palestine. Of course this has to do with Germany's past and its great hesitation in being critical of Israel.

But a section of Die Linke, notably its Communist platform, has been increasingly active in its criticism of Israeli policy. Die Linke parliamentarians Annette Groth, Inge Höger and Norman Paech were on the Gaza Flotilla in 2010.

Sahra Wagenknecht won the deputy leader position in her party, despite criticism of her position on the rights of the Palestinians. Her colleague Ulla Jelpke said: "I consider it legitimate to be against Zionism. After all it has apartheid-like characteristics."

She was pilloried for her sentiment, but holds fast. Criticism that suggests that these people are anti-Semites goes no-where. It is no longer a sufficient silencer.

Critics of Israel at the highest level in the West no longer wish to remain silent. The consensus is intolerable. It is hard to contain them with spurious charges. Wallström is a highly respected politician, who has had a long history of fighting against war and dictatorship.

As a young activist, she stood against the Vietnam War and then against the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. This is a person with strong adherence to the values of self-determination and human rights. That is the platform from which she speaks.

It is easy to disparage an academic here or a journalist there, but it is harder to destroy the career of someone with a great deal of integrity won over years in the public eye.

Within Europe, pressure from civil society groups has increased

Will others follow Wallstöm's lead? Is there someone like her in the United Kingdom or France? Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party has been plain spoken about the reality of Israeli occupation. Could he push his party to strengthen its objections to the Israeli occupation?

What will be the position of the new left-wing governments in Portugal and Spain? Both Portugal and Spain - when under right-wing governments - voted to recognise Palestine as a state.

Will Portugal's Left Bloc and Spain's Podemos go further yet and open a discourse of criticism in southern Europe?

This is not guaranteed - as can be seen from Greece's left-wing Syriza movement, which has as close if not closer ties to Israel than its right-wing predecessor.

Within Europe, pressure from civil society groups has increased. The most visible pressure comes from the academic realm, where scholars have boycotted Israeli institutions that benefit from the occupation of the Palestinians.

Recently, about 200 Italian professors - "a solid critical block of scholars" - signed a declaration to say that they were "no longer willing to tolerate Israeli academic complicity with Israel's state violence".

They particularly objected to Italian collaboration with Technion - the Haifa based Institute of Technology that develops devices for the Israeli military. Some 300 British scholars had signed a pledge the previous year, pointing to "intolerable human rights violations".

Last year about 200 Irish academics signed a petition to boycott Israeli academic institutions, since they were "disturbed by the involvement of Israeli higher education institutions in Israel's military and security industries".

Defying state repression, French academics called for their own version of the academic boycott on 19 January. What is important to note here is that many of the leaders of this movement are young academics, most of whom have little security of tenure.

They are motivated simply by a moral commitment. It will not easily be squelched by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback). Follow him on Twitter: @VijayPrashad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.