Iceland and Israel Discuss Gaza Visa Holders

bjarni benediktsson

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson had a phone meeting with his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz yesterday, where the two discussed Icelandic visa holders in Gaza. Some 100 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly children, hold approved Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. Bjarni requested assistance in processing the list of visa holders, according to a press release from the Icelandic government.

Government criticised for moving slowly

Iceland’s government has been criticised for moving slowly on extracting Icelandic visa holders from Gaza. An Icelandic lawyer representing one Palestinian family waiting for reunification has submitted a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman asserting that the government is responsible for the individuals on the basis of humanitarian law. In early February, Icelandic authorities sent three representatives to Cairo to look into bringing the visa-holders across the Rafah border, but their efforts have yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilian volunteers have already gotten around 25 Icelandic visa holders out of Gaza.

Special examination needed, Foreign Ministry says

“The Icelandic government sent a list of residence permit holders to the authorities in the region in the first half of February,” the government press release states. “In communication with the Israeli government, it has been stated that the list is unique as there are no Icelandic citizens or dual citizens on it, only residence permit holders. The list therefore requires special examination on their part, and has therefore not yet been processed.”

Icelandic government ministers previously stated that Iceland has no obligation to extract Icelandic visa holders from Gaza. Ministers also stated that other Nordic countries were only extracting their own citizens from the region, not visa holders, a statement that proved to be false.

Iceland Condemns Russian Treatment of Alexei Navalny

Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Iceland’s Foreign Ministry called the director of the Russian embassy in Iceland to a meeting yesterday due to the death of Alexei Navalny. He was told that Iceland condemns Russian authorities’ treatment of Navalny. Russia’s ambassador to Iceland was asked to leave last year following the invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign Minister blames Russian government

“It was made clear to the director that the Icelandic government condemns the Russian government’s treatment of Navalny, which led to his death last week,” reads a written response from the ministry to RÚV. Russian diplomats have been called to similar meetings in Iceland’s neighbouring countries. “The Icelandic government also condemns the Russian government’s attacks on human rights and people’s freedom, as a large number of people have been imprisoned in Russia recently following Navalny’s death,” the response continues.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson tweeted about Navalny’s death last week, stating “Saddened to learn of the passing of Alexei Navalny and I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and supporters. Putin and the Russian government bear ultimate responsibility for his death.”

Cooling relations

Iceland shut down its embassy in Moscow in August 2023 and requested the Russian embassy in Iceland scale down its operations and send home its ambassador. The last time there was no Russian ambassador in Iceland was between 1948-1954. While Iceland’s Foreign Minister at the time stated that the closure did not entail a complete severing of diplomatic relations between the countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated it “destroys” the countries’ bilateral relations.

Ambassador Nomination Draws Surprise and Criticism

foreign minister bjarni benediktsson

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson has nominated his former assistant as Ambassador to the United States, RÚV reports. An administrative analyst has called the nomination unusual while Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson has called it a breach of ethics.

Svanhildur Holm Valsdóttir, Bjarni’s nominee, has been director of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce for the past three years. Between 2013 and 2020, she worked as Bjarni’s assistant. Prior to that, she was the CEO of the Independence Party, of which Bjarni is the chair. Svanhildur holds a law degree as well as an MBA from Reykjavík University.

Threshold for ambassador lowered

“The threshold for the rank of ambassador has really been lowered with the appointment of Svanhildur Holm, as her promotion in this regard is very rare,” Haukur Arnþórsson, an administrative analyst, told RÚV. He added that the appointment was a surprise. While in the past, former politicians have been appointed as ambassadors, often to strong criticism, appointing a former political assistant and a public official from a minister’s former ministry is something completely new, Haukur stated.

Breach of ethics, says opposition

Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson asserted that Bjarni’s nomination of Svanhildur may constitute a breach of ethics. He stated that the Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate the matter if he considers there to be reason to do so.

Position not advertised

Bjarni Benediktsson stepped into the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs two months ago, after resigning as Minister of Finance when the Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded he had been unfit to approve the partial sale of Íslandsbanki bank.

Svanhildur’s appointment is for a period of five years. The position was not advertised. US authorities have yet to accept the nomination.

In 2020, Bjarni’s fellow party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson proposed tightening the regulations for appointing ambassadors. The proposed amendments, which, among other changes, would have made advertising ambassadorial openings mandatory, were not passed.

Disappointed in Icelandic Government’s Response to Gaza

Icelandic government Palestine protest

Locals in Iceland have held regular protests outside the Icelandic government’s cabinet meetings since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. Protesters are calling on the government to condemn Israeli authorities for their actions and use its influence to call for a ceasefire in the conflict. Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in an emergency meeting of the UN last month.

Call on government to condemn Israel’s actions

“We are here to tell the government of Iceland that it has not done its job in these matters, because it has only condemned Hamas. It has not yet gotten around to condemning Israel and the atrocities that are currently being committed. And the performance at the UN is of course shameful,” Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, chairman of the Iceland-Palestine Association, told RÚV reporters at this morning’s protest. A sizeable group gathered to wave flags, chant in support of Palestine, and express their disappointment towards cabinet ministers.

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is fairly strong among the Icelandic public. The Iceland-Palestine Association chaired by Hjálmtýr was founded in 1987.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson, who recently took on the position after resigning as Minister of Finance stated that he was not consulted on the UN General Assembly ceasefire vote. In a recent press conference, he refused to call Israel’s bombing of refugee camp Jabalia as an “attack on a refugee camp,” insisting it was “a matter of how you approach it.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Responds to Iceland’s Embassy Closure

Jakobsdóttir and Lavrov

Iceland’s decision to suspend operations in its Moscow embassy “destroys” the countries’ bilateral operations, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has stated according to Reuters. Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs announced last week that it would shut down the embassy of Iceland in Moscow on August 1 and had requested the Russian embassy in Iceland to scale down its operations and send home its ambassador. Icelandic authorities will lay off the embassy’s locally hired staff and terminate rental contracts in Moscow.

“The decision taken by the Icelandic authorities to lower the level of diplomatic relations with Russia destroys the entire range of Russian-Icelandic cooperation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry stated. “We will take this unfriendly decision into account when building our ties with Iceland in the future. All anti-Russian actions of Reykjavik will inevitably be followed by a corresponding reaction.”

The Icelandic embassy in Moscow has had seven staff members: two sent out from Iceland and five who were hired locally. Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs told Vísir that the five locally hired staff members will be laid off according to their current employment contracts. Iceland’s Ambassador to Russia Árni Þór Sigurðsson will be relocated to the Icelandic embassy in Copenhagen. The ministry also expects to terminate its rental contracts both for the embassy offices and the ambassador’s residence.

A press release from Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs stated that “[t]he decision to close down the embassy’s activities does not imply the termination of the diplomatic relationship between the countries. As soon as conditions permit, emphasis will be placed on resuming the activities of the Icelandic embassy in Moscow.”

Iceland to Close Embassy in Moscow

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

The embassy of Iceland in Moscow will be shut down on August 1, according to a press release from Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Icelandic authorities have also requested the Russian embassy in Reykjavík scale down its operations so there is no longer a Russian ambassador in Iceland. These changes do not mean a complete severing of diplomatic relations between Iceland and Russia, however.

Ukraine’s Minister for Foreign Affairs thanked Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, his Icelandic counterpart, for the decision to suspend operations of its embassy in Moscow and request Russia to limit the operations of its embassy in Reykjavík. “Russia must see that barbarism leads to complete isolation. I encourage other states to follow Iceland’s example,” he tweeted.

Þórdís Kolbrún told RÚV that the decision was made after extensive consideration, adding “it is not suitable for there to be so much Russian activity here in Reykjavík because of how relations are very limited and will continue to be until the Russians decide to behave in a different way than they are doing now.”

Iceland has operated an embassy in Moscow since 1944 with the exception of 1951-1953. The last time there was no Russian ambassador in Iceland was 1948-1954. “The decision to close down the embassy’s activities does not imply the termination of the diplomatic relationship between the countries,” the press release from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs states. “As soon as conditions permit, emphasis will be placed on resuming the activities of the Icelandic embassy in Moscow.”

Armed Plain-Clothes Police and Snipers in Reykjavík for Council of Europe Summit

The Council of Europe summit that will be held in Reykjavík, Iceland next month will not only bring European officials to the streets of the capital, but also hundreds of armed police as well as snipers. RÚV reports that around 300 police officers have received special training in the use of firearms in preparation for the event. Some 250 suits have been purchased so that officers can be on duty in plain-clothes during the event.

Armed police officers are a very rare sight in Iceland, as ordinary police officers do not carry firearms on their person. Police vehicles are equipped with a firearm, and special forces do carry firearms on their person, but they are only called out for violent incidents. Such extensive security and law enforcement as is being prepared for the summit has never been seen in Iceland.

All streets around Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, where the summit will take place, will be closed to vehicular traffic May 16 and 17 during the event, though they will be open to pedestrians and cyclists. Drivers can expect delays across a broader area as heads of state will receive police escorts when they are travelling by car. In total, 44 heads of state have confirmed their attendance at the event.

Iceland has around 850 active police officers and most of them will be involved in the summit in one way or another. According to the Ministry of Justice, the cost of law enforcement for the event will be around ISK 1.4 billion [$10.3 million, €9.3 million].

Iceland’s Prime Minister Travelling to Ukraine

Katrín Jakobsdóttir Bjarni Benediktsson Sigurður Ingi Ráðherra

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir are on their way to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials, Vísir reports. One of the topics of discussion will be Ukraine’s participation in the fourth summit of the Council of Europe, to be held in Reykjavík in May.

Katrín and Þórdís Kolbrún’s trip has not been highly publicised, likely for reasons of safety. They will head to the country from Poland today on a trip that will reportedly take all day and all evening.

The main purpose of the visit is to underline Iceland’s continued support and solidarity with Ukraine in the country’s defence against the illegal Russian invasion. The Icelandic and Ukrainian officials are scheduled to meet tomorrow. Reporters from Iceland’s national broadcaster RÚV are travelling alongside the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and will report on the meetings tomorrow.

Read More: Council of Europe Summit to be Held in Reykjavík

The Council of Europe summit set to take place in Reykjavík on May 16-17 is the fourth-ever in the organisation’s 73-year history. Considerable security precautions will be in place during the summit, and Icelandic authorities have requested the assistance of foreign police forces for the event.

Some 46 nations are party to the Council of Europe, which is the oldest active pan-European organisation.

Sail from Sweden to Iceland to Mark 250th Anniversary of Scientific Expedition

Solander 250 Embassy of Sweden in Reykjavík

The year 2022 marks 250 years since the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander made a scientific expedition to Iceland. To commemorate the expedition, the Embassy of Sweden has collaborated with Icelandic partners to organise a sailing trip, an art exhibition, workshops, nature walks, and other projects that will be held at over 30 locations across Iceland over the next one and a half years.

“Together Iceland and Sweden continue a dialogue on history, biology, geology, anthropology and culture which has spanned over many centuries. The project deals with our common past, present and future,” Sweden’s Ambassador to Iceland Pär Ahlberger told Iceland Review. “I am very grateful to the Government of Iceland and our more than 30 Icelandic partners for the very generous support to this, the most comprehensive Swedish – Icelandic project ever.”

Daniel Solander (1733-1782) was a Swedish naturalist who studied under celebrated professor of botany Carl Linnaeus. He travelled as far as Australia and New Zealand for scientific expeditions, where he helped make and describe collections of plants from various regions.

Solander visited Iceland in 1772. A travelogue from the expedition, Letters on Iceland, first published in 1777, is available in full on the Icelandic National Library website.

Icelandic artists interpret Solander’s expedition

One of the cornerstones of the commemorative project is the art exhibition Solander 250: Bréf frá Íslandi (e. Solander 250: Letters from Iceland), which features the work of ten Icelandic artists who contribute with their perspectives of Daniel Solander’s expedition to Iceland. The exhibition opens in Hafnarborg gallery in the town of Hafnarfjörður on August 27, but will travel to nine other locations in Iceland over the coming 18 months.

The exhibition Paradise Lost – Daniel Solander’s Legacy, first exhibited in New Zealand and Australia in 2019-2021 and focusing on the first encounter between Sweden and the Pacific Region, will be shown across Iceland alongside Bréf frá Íslandi.

Other events that will be part of the commemorative project include musical performances and educational events.

New United States Ambassador to Iceland Appointed

Carrin F. Patman

The United States Senate has confirmed Carrin F. Patman as the next US Ambassador to Iceland. Patman is a lawyer by training and was a major fundraiser in both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden’s electoral campaigns in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Vísir reported first.

Patman, 65, was nominated for the position by Joe Biden in February. At the time of her nomination, she stated she had picked up some basic Icelandic, though in her words: “Just a little.”

Patman has been chair of Houston Metro in Houston, Texas since 2010. She was previously a partner at Bracewell LLP, where her specialisations included class action litigation and environmental violations. She was a founding board member of the Center for Women in Law and has been a leader in women’s rights organisations in Texas.

In a statement, Patman said she hoped to “strengthen our cooperation and understanding between the governments of the United States and Iceland.”

The last US ambassador to Iceland, Jeffrey Ross Gunter, was a controversial figure, not least for the social media posts he made throughout his tenure. A US government report published late last year revealed that embassy staff were still recovering from the “threatening and intimidating environment” created by Gunter.