(July 10, 2019 / JNS) The Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) recent victory in Finland’s national elections thrust the party into power for the first time in more than a decade. The SDP won the election on a platform opposed to tough austerity measures deployed by former prime minister Juha Sipilä’s center-right administration.
The changing of the guard means a shift in foreign policy, with Timo Soini giving way to the Green Party’s choice of Pekka Haavisto as foreign minister. Largely seen as a safe pick, Haavisto’s appointment may have wider implications, as Finland takes up its six-month term as president of the European Union Council starting on July 1. While the newly elected prime minister has indicated that Finland’s council presidency will spend its time on climate change, there will also no doubt be an impact on Israel and other key foreign-policy matters.
Soini’s exit from the Foreign Ministry poses new challenges for the country’s position on Israel. Soini was known for a strong opposition to biased E.U. boycotts against Israel, as well as to the more nefarious BDS movement, and his departure leaves the Middle East’s sole democracy more isolated. Under Soini’s leadership, Finland’s ties to Israel were an outlier in a traditionally anti-Israel Scandinavia. His work could be unraveled with the ascension of Haavisto, who boasts strong liberal internationalist bonafides, to the top post.
The extent of the damage to Israel may be limited by the composition of the SDP-led five-party coalition, which successfully excluded the Finns Party despite its strong results. To ensure an alliance with the outgoing Centre Party and fend off the Finns Party, SDP likely agreed to nix first-choice foreign minister candidate Erkki Tuomioja, who has long held unequivocally anti-Israel views.
Although Finland’s stance on Israel may not completely shift, Haavisto remains a wild card. The new foreign minister represents a country being led by its first center-left government in over 15 years, and wasted no time voicing his opposition to the United States’ position on Israel. Haavisto has also voiced firm opposition to Israeli demands regarding Jerusalem, and is adamantly against Israel’s building projects in Judea and Samaria.
With the E.U. Council presidency approaching, it seems headwinds are blowing stronger against Israel than they were before the Finnish election, regardless of how many freedoms Haavisto enjoys in steering Finland’s foreign policy.
The SDP is replete with self-proclaimed social-justice defenders who have publicly expressed derisive and malignant views on Israel and Jews in general, offering pandering apologies to the media in the aftermath. Current member of parliament Hussein al-Taee, for instance, posted on Facebook in 2012 regarding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a “Jew doing what a Jew does best. F***s up everybody to gain everything.”
Others in key positions have touted the same sentiment to gain popularity among the Social Democrats’ base, which is enamored with political showboating through support for Palestinians. Like the Social Democrats, the Greens are both left-wing and liberal, and since Foreign Minister Haavisto was their pick as part of the coalition negotiations, he is likely to echo popular opinions on his side of the table regarding foreign policy.
According to track-two diplomacy specialist Dr. Herman Schmidt of the London-based Global Distribution Network, a closed forum was held recently in Washington, D.C., by Israel-focused think-tanks. During the meeting, several attendees expressed concern over the new Finnish government’s policy towards Israel. Schmidt notes that although Finland is hardly a global power-player, the concern is warranted considering the prevalent anti-Israel and anti-Trump attitudes within the newly formed Finnish cabinet.
These swirling political tides in Finland may mean that Israel will find itself with even fewer friends in an already unfriendly E.U., which has for years found it convenient to condemn Israel at the expense of placing attention on far more pressing issues. Finland’s new government has already begun its new term with considerable power at the helm of the E.U. Council, and with that power Finland should diligently weigh its options.
If Helsinki seeks to push the Palestinian cause during its E.U. Council presidency, it risks derailing the Trump administration’s peace efforts and consequently Finland’s relationship with Washington. However, the new government now has a golden opportunity to position Finland as a trusted and unbiased mediator by stepping back and allowing the United States to lead the negotiations. In doing so, Prime Minister Antti Rinne, together with Foreign Minister Haavisto, can strengthen and solidify Finland’s relationship with the United States and other key allies.
Mikael Virtanen is a Helsinki-based entrepreneur with a focus on chemical manufacturing, commodities trading and crisis management. He leverages his broad commercial and business experience to write about global economic and political affairs.