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Persson: mistake to take part in Israel exercise

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16:29 CEST+02:00
The government made an error when it allowed the Swedish Air Force to undertake exercises together with Israel, Göran Persson has said.

The Air Force took part in exercises with Israel last year in Canada, it has emerged. Last month the government withdrew Swedish participation in international exercises because of the presence of the Israelis, drawing criticism from the opposition in Sweden as well as from Israel.

"The same rules should have applied then as now," the Prime Minister said on Wednesday.

The exercises in Canada last year were twice approved by the government.

"There is no good explanation for it. It must quite simply, as one of the generals responsible said, be down to a mistake. The same position should have applied then as now," Persson said.

Despite the fact that Israel's participation was mentioned in documentation of both the formal government orders, ministers failed to notice the fact.

"Not every government order is perfect, we have made misses before and we will miss again. Clearly we missed here," the Prime Minister admitted.

Despite the controversy, Persson described relations with Israel as good.

"They are good, and I have over the years seen to it that we have developed very close relations with the state of Israel, its government and with Jewish groups around the world as well as here in Sweden."

"I thing that one needs good relations with both sides in the Middle East conflict."

Persson tried to play down the significance of the decision to grant a visa to Palestinian minister Atef Adwan.

"I think the cancelled air force exercises are, in the circumstances, of marginal importance."

"The Hamas decision is, on the other hand, an important question of principle over visa rights and how they should be handled. In this area every individual has a right to have his visa application tried and it is the individual who is subjected to a personal examination."

Persson said that while Hamas is classed as a terrorist organization, that does not mean that everyone who is linked to or is a member of Hamas is classed as a terrorist, Persson argued.

"A fairly large group applied for visas to Sweden. Of that group, two were denied visas. The decision to deny a visa to one of them was taken after contact with France, so it was handled completely correctly according to the way it should be done in Schengen.

I dread moving towards a situation in which political decisions determine the awarding of visas, because then we will have taken a backwards step.

Government ministers were banned from meeting Adwan, yet a number of Persson's colleagues in the Social Democrats did meet him, something the prime minister refused to criticize.

"Sweden is a land free of all forms of oppression, and all forms of censorship. If an individual wants direct relations or conversations with a representative of Hamas, then they may.

"Among them are certainly Social Democrats, Left Party members and Greens - and possibly even one or two free-thinking liberals for all I know. But it would be strange to say that they must not talk with people who are in our country," Persson said.

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