Appointed in December 2021, Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland is the UN special envoy to the Middle East and is involved actively in the diplomatic process in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza. In this position, he expects to be part of future political mediations between Israel and Hamas. In the coming weeks continued diplomatic efforts on the part of the special envoy will take place, although the chances of his success are not yet in sight.
Tor Wennesland comes to this position with a distinguished diplomatic record and extensive mediation experience. Working in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wennesland served as Tony Blair’s adviser to the Quartet on Middle East affairs in 2007. At the Middle East desk in the Norwegian Foreign office, he fostered a network of contacts that led to his appointment as Norway’s representative to the Palestinian Authority between 2007 and 2011. During these years he was known to maintain good relations with all parties. Moreover, establishing ties with Hamas was “recognized” by Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian Foreign Minister who later became the Prime Minister of Norway. Wennesland’s working relationship with Hamas continued to deepen over time.
During his tenure, Wennesland pointed out that Hamas tunnels on the border between Israel and Egypt produced high revenues for Hamas which allowed Hamas to incentivize the loyalty of their followers. When meeting with senior Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip, Wennesland was known to be forthright and direct and to try to engage Hamas in discussions about the actualities on the ground. This uncompromising approach caused Yahya Sinwar’s refusal to meet with him.
As Norway’s Ambassador to Egypt and Libya between 2012 and 2015, Tor Wennesland was aware of the critical link between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. No less important was the relation between the Bedouin tribes and the smuggling routes to the Gaza Strip. From his acquaintance with the Egyptians, he understood how the authorities in Cairo operated in Sinai and he knew the importance of Israeli-Egyptian coordination regarding the Gaza Strip. Between 2015 and 2020, Wennesland was Norway’s special envoy to the Middle East. During this time, he leveraged Norway’s financial assistance for Gaza (Such as the electric power plant in Gaza) to extend his nation’s relationship with Hamas.
When Operation Guardian Wall opened in May 2021, Tor Wennesland expanded his contacts through his position as the newly appointed UN special envoy to the Middle East and began to promote frequent talks with National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and other Israeli officials. Although the Egyptians were leading most of the communications between Israel and Hamas, Wennesland held separate talks with the head of the Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh. He paid an official visit to Qatar to meet with the Hamas leadership during talks on a ceasefire. Mainly he discussed the conditions of Gaza after the operation. In his meeting with Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, one of the meeting topics he raised was the issue of reconstructing the Gaza Strip, knowing that Qatar would continue to be deeply involved in this process.
With the end of Operation Guardian Wall, Wennesland is expected to oversee the transfer of UN funds to Gaza. However, he sees his role as UN special envoy as broader than simply being part of the rebuilding of Gaza. Trying to serve as a mediator between Israel and Hamas on the issues of the return of the remains of IDF soldiers and of the Israeli civilians held in Gaza, his efforts are receiving attention from both parties. It remains unclear to what extent he can promote an agreement between the two sides.
On the Israeli side, there seems to be no change in policy towards Hamas. The options of acting militarily or trying to reach a long-term agreement with a terror organization that continues to arm itself with greater military capabilities remain open questions. Among Israeli decision-makers, the debate seems to focus on whether to act militarily against Hamas at a time that would be suitable to Israel or to wait and exercise diplomacy until such options might be exhausted. Within this uncertain environment, Wennesland will use his diplomatic skills and network of contacts to try to extract concessions from the two sides without having any timetable at all. Since no practical commitment can be expected from Hamas in the weeks ahead, what seems likely is that the special envoy will engage a series of meetings with regional leaders. These meetings will test the efficacy of UN mediation efforts and, perhaps more importantly, may be an indication of the future for UN diplomatic initiatives in Middle Eastern politics.