Israel curbs Swedish media over "blood libel"

JERUSALEM Sun Aug 23, 2009 11:43am EDT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel placed curbs on Swedish journalists on Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Sweden's government to condemn a newspaper article that Israeli officials say recalled historic hatred of Jews in Europe.

Israel's foreign minister compared it to the Dreyfus Affair -- the trial of a Jewish officer in the French army a century ago, which drew attention to anti-Semitism across the continent and inspired Zionists to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine.

Sweden has said press freedom means it cannot intervene in a dispute over the tabloid Aftonbladet's reprinting last Monday of long-standing Palestinian allegations that the Israeli army may have taken organs for transplants from men who died in custody.

"The statements in the Swedish press were outrageous," Netanyahu was quoted telling his cabinet, in his first comment on the issue. "We are not expecting an apology from the Swedish government...We are expecting condemnation."

The official quoting him said the premier, who will be in Europe this week visiting London and Berlin, echoed colleagues in comparing the article to medieval "blood libels," which alleged Jews used the blood of Christian babies in religious rites.

A spokesman for Israel's Interior Ministry said it was "freezing" the issue of entry visas to Swedish journalists, though those already working in the country would not be affected for now. The Government Press Office said it would take more time to review applications for accreditation from Swedes.

The dispute has soured relations with the country that holds the rotating presidency of the European Union just as Israel is defending its treatment of the Palestinians against criticism in Europe of January's war in Gaza and settlement in the West Bank.

PRESS FREEDOM

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said last week his country opposed anti-Semitism but would not muzzle the media.

A ministry spokeswoman declined comment on a report that Sweden's ambassador to Israel was reprimanded for issuing a statement condemning the Aftonbladet article as "appalling." The statement was no longer on the embassy's Web site on Sunday.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a right-wing coalition party whose outspoken criticisms of Arabs have prompted accusations of racism, praised the ambassador and compared her to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who acted on his own initiative to save Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.

Dismissing Sweden's argument about press freedom as a "fig leaf" for inaction, Lieberman told Army Radio: "What angers us is that the Swedish government didn't condemn it but hastened to reprimand the ambassador who did find it right to condemn this blood libel, which recalls the Dreyfus Affair."

He also compared the article to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Semitic tract purporting to show a global Jewish conspiracy which was widely cited by Hitler among others.

Israeli officials say Europeans often favor Palestinians at their expense and Netanyahu's government is trying to counter that. Lieberman has told Israeli diplomats to circulate a 1941 photograph of a Palestinian leader meeting Hitler as part of a campaign to stem opposition to Jewish West Bank settlements.

(Additional reporting by Ally Fisher-Ilan and Jeffrey Heller)

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