Norway should have looked in the mirror before voting yes at the UN

Norway’s decision to support observer status for the Palestinians at the UN General Assembly last month ignores two aspects of its own historical legacy.

In the nearly 20 years since the Oslo Accords, Norway has never regained its foothold as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. In more recent years, the domestic political mandate has become increasingly captious toward Israel. This has led to the formation of a virtual cottage industry of “scholarship” devoted to fixing all the blame for the stagnant peace process on Israel.

By contrast, political sentiment toward the Palestinian leadership has only become more accommodating. Norway chairs the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee and is a generous aid provider to the Palestinian Authority. It has also come to light that the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has maintained talks with Hamas while steadfastly refusing to characterize it as a terrorist organization.

Until now, the nadir in Norwegian-Israeli relations probably occurred last year, when Norway’s ambassador, Svein Sevje, opined in an off-the-record interview that the horrendous July 2011 terrorist attacks in his own country were of a qualitatively different sort than terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.

That low point may be behind us, however.

With the appointment of Espen Barth Eide, the current “red-green” government’s posture has increasingly set reason over rhetoric in its bilateral relations with Israel. The non-socialist opposition has also promised a more constructive policy toward Israel should they – as it appears now that they will – form a new coalition government in 2013.

Still, Norway was one of the Western countries that most enthusiastically voted in favor of recognizing “Palestine” as a non-member state in the United Nations.

Although this move undoubtedly was motivated by the hope that elevating the Abbas regime would encourage progress on the road to peace, it set aside Norway’s legacy of success in peacemaking – in two important respects.

One in recent history, as a mediator – some might even say the midwife – of the negotiating track toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. While Norway has freely criticized Israel’s administration of Area C in the territories, there was no discernible hesitation about supporting Abbas’s unilateral actions in the UN. Beyond the typical cliches, the Norwegian government has yet to publish a reasoned explanation on whether it considers the Oslo Accords void; or how the Palestinian UN bid was in keeping with the accords. Such inconsistency should and undoubtedly will call into question Norway’s credibility as a party to peace efforts past and present, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The other break with legacy is to be found in infrequently publicized aspects to Norway’s own road to independence.

The Norwegian foreign ministry is located on June 7th Square, so named after the date in 1905 when the Norwegian parliament created a constitutional crisis that sought to depose Oscar II of Sweden as king of Norway. This date, however, constitutes a bit of vanity among Norwegians, because no other country would accept Norway’s sovereignty until October 26th that year, when the Swedish king renounced his claim to the Norwegian crown.

In the intervening months, there had been mutual recriminations, talk of war, on-and-off treaty negotiations, public posturing, a plebiscite, and disarmament.

Unlike the Palestinian bid for independence in this century, there were no dark clouds over Norway’s claim in 1905. Borders were already established, there was in all respects a stable government, there had been no terrorist attacks, or any semblance of armed conflict since Sweden’s lopsided victory in 1814. The Nordic region was, as it is now, remarkably stable.  Even so, the major powers of the time wisely decided that a more durable peace was one that the parties arrived at on their own. The result was a treaty that immediately led to normalization and soon thereafter, a true brotherhood of nations that persists to this day.

Honest people will disagree about the best course for creating a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but one thing is certain: had Norway chosen the path it is supporting for the Palestinians, we might still be sharing a king with Sweden.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area