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Sweden's housing minister resigns over Israel comments

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden’s housing minister, Mehmet Kaplan, resigned on Monday partly over comments he made seven years ago comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, increasing pressure on an already unpopular government.

The center-left coalition of the Social Democrats and Greens has been strained by an asylum crisis that has forced the government to reverse decades of generous refugee policies and is lagging the centre-right opposition bloc in opinion polls.

“Mehmet Kaplan’s overall assessment of the situation is that he will not be able to act as a minister and I share that assessment,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of the Social Democrats told a news conference.

At the weekend, daily Svenska Dagbladet reported comments made by Kaplan in 2009, before he became a minister, when he said “Israelis treat Palestinians in a way that is very like that in which Jews were treated during Germany in the 1930s”.

Relations between Sweden and Israel hit rock bottom in 2014 when the Social Democrat-Green government recognised the Palestinian state.

Kaplan, who was born in Turkey, has also come under criticism for attending a dinner attended by a representative of an ultra-nationalist Turkish organisation.

Kaplan told reporters he rejected “all forms of extremism whether they are nationalistic, religious or in any other form”.

His ministerial responsibilities will be shared out until the appointment of a new housing minister.

Both the Social Democrats and Greens have seen their support decline since the 2014 election, in large part due to the refugee crisis.

A Sifo poll commissioned by daily Svenska Dagbladet on Saturday showed support for the Social Democrats at 27 percent and for the Greens at 6 percent, down from 31 percent and 7 percent respectively in the 2014 election.

The coalition is also at loggerheads over plans to sell state-owned utility Vattenfall’s German lignite coal operations.

The Green Party is a long-time opponent of coal power and wants the business shut down.

Reporting by Daniel Dickson, Johan Sennero and Simon Johnson; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Gareth Jones