Interesting talk by Israeli ambassador Isaac Bachman at theSweden-Israel Chamber of Commerce

Highly interesting breakfast meeting this morning with Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Isaac Bachman, at the Sweden-Israel Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm. Almost every single seat was taken, which says a lot about the importance of commercial and other non-political ties between Sweden and Israel. After five years in Stockholm, Isaac Bachman will soon return to Israel, and his address this morning was also something of a summary of his five-year tenure in Sweden.
Here’s a thing: I firmly believe in the adage “Smile first thing in the morning and get it over and done with for the rest of the day”. Because anyone who knows me also knows I wake up early and then spend the rest of the day waiting (in vain) for an improvement in the weather so I can go out cycling.
That pretty much sums up the ambassador’s view on his past five years representing Israel in Sweden. He started his talk with three bright notes – “Sweden is a country of honey, but the bee is never far away with its sting”; “We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our stay, meeting remarkably friendly and warm people”; and “Sweden is a great country”.
Those were the smiles for the day, at 8.30 in the morning. The rest of his talk was a heartfelt appeal for greater understanding from the Swedish government, the Swedish media and – above all – the Swedish opposition, which he rightly pointed out differs very little from the coalition government in its treatment of Israel. Five years after taking up his appointment in Sweden, like me waiting for better cycling weather in Gothenburg, he too is still waiting for better political weather in Stockholm.
Isaac Bachman emphasised that trade and commerce represent a well-functioning chapter in relations between Sweden and Israel, something that not many people realise. The members of the Sweden-Israel Chamber of Commerce all know this, of course, but the message doesn’t seem to penetrate outside. He said several times that this is the fun part of being the ambassador to Sweden, seeing how well developments are continuing in behind-the-scenes bilateral exchanges. He pointed out that he would love to see more open acknowledgement of this relationship, but even without that openness, the fact is that commercial ties between the two countries have never been stronger. He pointed to successful companies such as Volvo, Ericsson, IKEA, H&M and others.
Mr Bachman referred repeatedly to Sweden and Israel as being two “mature democracies” offering immense developmental potential to each other. That potential would be even greater if the political climate were smoother between the two, with vast prospects in the offing. It is Sweden’s political echelon that is limiting progress in this respect.
Touching on the political aspects of his position as ambassador to Stockholm, Isaac Bachman said that working at the embassy is like sitting atop a seismograph, gauging every single little change in the ambient climate and waiting with trepidation for the next calamity. In his words, “Nothing prepares you for how Israel is treated in Sweden – the agreed climate regarding Israel is immensely negative. There is a kind of systematic intimidation of anyone who differs, who departs from the agreed line”. He described an “awful climate” that simply “doesn’t match with concepts such as liberalism and pluralism” for which Sweden repeatedly claims it is renowned. He used the word “brutal” to describe the way received wisdoms on the need to treat Israel negatively go unchallenged.
Poignantly, ambassador Bachman said “we are not paranoid when we see the Swedish government, media, and church all chasing us”. He reiterated several times that Sweden’s unfortunate decision to recognise Palestine was not an issue, because Israel is mature enough to acknowledge political facts on the ground and then progress beyond them, working within a changing diplomatic reality. It is Sweden that appears to be unable to move with the times. It seems to have taken upon itself a role as avowed critic of Israel – irrespective of facts on the ground. He repeated several times that in his meetings with Swedish politicians – including a one-hour long meeting with PM Stefan Löfven – he emphasised that “Israel wants to reset and reopen our mutual relationship”. To no avail.
Ambassador Bachman appeared justifiably disappointed with the lacklustre – I personally would go further and say non-existent – role of the Swedish opposition parties. He had organised a trip to Israel for Swedish Conservative Party and opposition leader Anna Kinberg-Batra – including an absolutely unprecedented 90-minute face-to-face meeting with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. At the end of her comprehensive visit, all Anna Kinberg-Batra had to say was “We do not approve of Israeli settlements”. Precisely in line with the Swedish left-wing government. Mr Bachman returned several times to the issue of the non-functioning political opposition in Sweden. He pointed out that the Swedish government and opposition actually cooperate more closely than the coalition government of Israel does within its own ranks…
It was painful – but not one bit surprising since he is perfectly correct – to hear the Israeli ambassador repeat several times that the daily grind of Swedish opposition to Israel means that Sweden has lost Israel, that Israel has totally given up on Sweden. As a case in hand, he mentioned that Sweden took it upon itself to appoint an “envoy” to Israel – but declined to inform either the Israeli ambassador in Stockholm or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. The ambassador, being the perfect diplomat that he always is, said that this behaviour was “unprecedented”. I would suggest a better word: “incompetent”, together with “offensive”, “amateurish” and “immature”. As the ambassador explained, in the diplomatic world there is a mechanism that governs the behaviour of countries with each other. Sweden, unfortunately, routinely ignores this mechanism – but only when it comes to its behaviour with Israel. I am not a diplomat, so I do not have to express myself diplomatically; Sweden’s behaviour is nothing short of scandalously incompetent.
One particularly painful episode to underline this disconnect between how countries are expected to behave with each other on the diplomatic stage is that of Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s repeated allegations that Israel commits “extrajudicial executions” of terrorists who have already killed civilians and are in the process of killing additional civilians. Yet this same Swedish politician – and her compatriots – are full of praise when Swedish security forces shoot dead a Swedish terrorist carrying out random murders at a school in the Swedish town of Trollhättan. He pointed out that Sweden never EVER uses the term “Palestinian terrorism”, but is perfectly happy to use the word “terrorism” to denote other identical killing sprees carried out by other identical groups for identical ideological reasons. As he so poignantly pointed out, “while we are burying our dead, Sweden accuses us of extrajudicial executions of the terrorists responsible for those deaths”.
As he rounded off his talk, ambassador Isaac Bachman revealed that Swedish Social Democratic parliamentarians have confided in him that it is not favourable to their continued careers to speak openly to him or to even be perceived as remaining neutral on issues dealing with Israel.
On that sombre note, the ambassador once again thanked his hosts and indeed Sweden for five exciting years and wished his successor a fruitful tenure.
One of the people in the audience was none other than former Swedish ambassador to Israel Carl-Magnus Hyltenius. Interestingly, Mr Hyltenius said that he could not disagree with what ambassador Bachman had said, although he did point out that historically, Sweden and Israel had once enjoyed a good relationship. He pointed out that politicians come and go, but that countries remain, so it was his hope that the historically warm and firm relationship between Sweden and Israel would outlive its current crop of politicians, to the benefit of both nations. He pointed out that “Sweden and Israel need each other. Working through trade is a great way to maintain our relationship.” He went on, addressing ambassador Bachman: “You have always done great work to maintain that relationship.”
And Mr Hyltenius is absolutely right. Ambassador Bachman has done sterling work for five long, arduous years in Sweden. We wish him the very best in his continued career upon returning to Israel.
Isaac Bachman takes away many fond memories of Sweden, not least his newly acquired love of ice-hockey. Accordingly, he was given a blue and yellow woollen scarf worn by supporters of Swedish championship cup-winning HV71. Perhaps not the most suitable item of clothing now that he is returning to the hot summer of Jerusalem.
Best of luck Isaac Bachman.