Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Monday rejected calls from Israel to condemn claims made by a tabloid newspaper that Israeli soldiers stole organs from the bodies of dead Palestinians.
The popular Aftonbladet daily made the allegations in a story last week, sparking public outrage in Israel and prompting senior figures in the government to demand that Sweden distance itself from the report.
But Reinfeldt said it was not for the government to comment on the content of every newspaper, stressing that a free press is an integral part of Swedish democracy.
"It's important for me to say that you cannot turn to the Swedish government and ask it to violate the Swedish constitution," he was quoted as saying by the TT news agency.
Reinfeldt also rejected the suggestion that the row could undermine his country's work in the Middle East peace process as the current holders of the EU presidency.
"Political ambitions always risk being used as an excuse to break off contacts or efforts, but I have no reason to believe that (is what is happening) at this point in time and I hope it won't go down that route," he said.
“A worrying shadow”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is expected to visit Israel in two weeks' time and Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has said that the incident "will cast a worrying shadow over meetings if it is not resolved".
Bildt himself, however, was keen to downplay talk of a diplomatic row when questioned by reporters on Friday.
"We have a very strong state relationship between Israel and our government. We are both open and democratic societies," Bildt said.
Curb on media
Yesterday Israel placed curbs on Swedish journalists as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Sweden's government to condemn the newspaper article.
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.
According to an Israeli official 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.
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 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.