Bildt seeks to expand Middle East cooperation

During a visit to the Middle East last week, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt launched several initiatives to “stabilize” the region, marking a possible shift in Sweden’s traditionally cautious, “two-steps forward, one-step back” approach to Middle Eastern conflicts, writes Rami Abdelrahman.

Bildt seeks to expand Middle East cooperation

Bildt managed to avoid demonstrations in Cairo against alleged Egyptian government corruption by meeting with his counterpart Ahmed Abu Al-Gheit in Sinai’s touristy Sharm El Sheikh.

During the meeting, Bildt conveyed Sweden’s concerns about the current socio-economical stress caused by a 50 percent price hike in Egyptian food prices, which has led to a bread-supply crisis for millions of underprivileged Egyptians.

The meeting also included a review of how Egypt has handled the recent influx of Gazans pouring across its border. The border was later fortified with a heavy cement wall to ensure Gazans could not again break out from an internationally-backed political and economic isolation, following Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Fast forward from Sinai to the Jordanian capital of Amman, where Bildt and Jordanian Prime Minister Nader Al Dahabi discussed the United Nations’ management of security in Iraq, with both men urging the international body to take on a wider role.

Along with Syria, Sweden and Jordan are home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees from the war and sectarian violence which followed the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s regime five years ago. The countries cooperate a great deal on Iraqi affairs, ranging from Swedish-Jordanian police cooperation on Iraqi human smuggling, to international efforts launched under the UN and EU to address the long-term needs of the displaced, as well as to build a viable, democratic state in the conflict-inflicted country.

To this end, Bildt said representatives from the countries neighboring Iraq will be invited to Stockholm to attend a UN conference in May, which is seen as a step toward the UN taking on a larger role in Iraq ahead of an expected reduction in the role of the current US-led coalition following the US elections in November.

“There never has been a democratic process in Iraq…it will take time; I am impressed by the progress the Iraqi government has made,” Bildt told Swedish reporters in Stockholm following his trip to the Middle East.

After meetings in Amman, Bildt travelled across the Jordan River and through many Israeli checkpoints to Ramallah, home of the Palestinian Authority. He discussed with Palestinian officials yet another conference to take place in Berlin which would bring together international political powers to maximize support for the weakening Palestinian government, in hopes that it can reach a peace deal with Israel by the end of 2008, as outlined at the November 2007 Annapolis Conference.

The Berlin conference would be in addition to meetings set to take place in Moscow later this spring as a follow up to Annapolis.

“Bildt said the point of his visit was to discover what has been done on the ground regarding the Annapolis meeting, and in preparation for a follow up meeting in Moscow later this year,” Palestinian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmad Kabaha told The Local from his office in Ramallah.

Kabaha added that Bildt agreed to consider the authority’s request to increase Palestinian diplomatic representation in Stockholm and to train Palestinian diplomats.

In a recent interview with the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, Bildt pledged to expand Sweden’s role in strengthening Palestinian Authority institutions in order to help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reach beyond the Annapolis Conference ambition of a two-state solution.

He also assured his Palestinian counterpart Riad Al Malki that Sweden would take part in a Palestinian Government capacity-building conference in Indonesia later this year, as well as a business-related conference on April 21st in Bethlehem, where the Swedish Church now has a permanent presence.

Following his meetings in Ramallah, Bildt next went to Nablus, one of the largest Palestinian cities, where he said he was impressed by the transformation of the city from a terrorism hub to an educational and economic center for Palestinians.

Before flying back to his home in Stockholm, Bildt paid a visit to Hebron for an update on a UN unit operating there to facilitate everyday life for 600,000 Palestinians and 150 Jewish families.

Interestingly, Bildt, a member of Sweden’s centre-right Moderate Party, did not meet officially anyone from the Israeli government, and the Israeli media did not mention Bildt’s visit to the region. According to one Israeli journalist, the Israelis “are busy with other international visitors such as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,” in connection with the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

One of the very first international initiatives to create peace between Palestinians and Israelis is attributed to Sweden’s former Social Democratic Foreign Minister Dag Hammarskjöld, who in the 1950s tried to improve Arab-Israeli relations in his capacity as Secretary General of the United Nations.

His initiative led to eventual peace deals between Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

Hammarskjöld’s efforts helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1961, three months after he died in a mysterious plane crash while on UN business in Africa, making him the only person to receive the award posthumously.


Israel intercepts Swedish Gaza-bound activist boat

The Israeli navy intercepted a Swedish-flagged activist boat bent on breaching its more than decade-long blockade of Gaza, the second in less than a week, the military said on Saturday.

Israel intercepts Swedish Gaza-bound activist boat
Photo: TT

“The ship was monitored and was intercepted in accordance with international law,” the military said in a statement, before the vessel, named Freedom for Gaza and carrying 12 people, was taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

“The (military) clarified to the ship’s passengers that they are violating the legal naval blockade and that any humanitarian merchandise can be transferred to Gaza through the Port of Ashdod,” the statement said.

The people on board were taken for “further inquiry.”

The organisers of the flotilla said the boat, which was carrying medical supplies, was intercepted in international waters.

“The demands of Ship to Gaza are that the ship with its crew and cargo will be returned to the site of the boarding, and that they will be allowed to go in peace through international and Palestinian waters in accordance to international law,” they said in a statement.

“This is a demand that the eleven years-long illegal and destructive blockade on Gaza will be lifted at last.”

Freedom was the second boat of the “Freedom Flotilla” to be intercepted en route to “break the blockade” on Gaza, organisers said.

Four boats left from Scandinavia in mid-May and stopped in some 28 ports along the way, with two remaining behind after a recent stop in the Italian port of Palermo.

On Sunday, the Israeli navy intercepted a Norwegian-flagged activist boat that was part of the flotilla.

Israel has fought three wars with Palestinian militants in Gaza since 2008 and says the blockade is necessary to keep them from obtaining weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes.

UN officials have called for the blockade to be lifted, citing deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian enclave run by Islamist movement Hamas where 80 percent of the two million population are dependent on aid.