Will Peres’s state visit to Norway mend fences with Israel?

A historical picture: Oslo's parade street decorated with Israeli flags.
A historical picture: Oslo’s parade street decorated with Israeli flags.

Dubbed a “historical high point” in the relationship – officially a friendship – between Israel and Norway, today marks the beginning of the first state visit from Israel to Norway. Shimon Peres will be received with full honors at 10 am today outside the Royal Palace, there will be a gala dinner with the royal family and dignitaries, and the Nobel laureate will give remarks at the Nobel Institute tomorrow.

Without a doubt, there will be demonstrations, op-eds, and reports why Norway should not honor the 90-year old Israeli veteran of more wars, conflicts, and disruptions than anyone in Norway could possibly imagine, the head of state of a country with which we have full diplomatic relations.

One of the key goals of this visit, according to Norwegian ambassador Svein Sevje, is to improve Norway’s reputation in Israel. The Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs is concerned that the Israeli press coverage of Norway is biased and negative: too often inaccurate, incomplete, and too likely to put a negative spin on Norwegian attitudes toward Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people.

NRK, the official state TV channel, helpfully provided “analysis” of Peres’s visit that mainly consisted of everything bad they could dig up about Shimon Peres. When it comes to “fairness” about everything Israeli in NRK, the key is to above all prevent a favorable impression.

The irony of complaining about Norway’s image in Israel is scarcely lost on Norwegian MFA officials, but public diplomacy on behalf of Israel is, after all, not their job.

In truth, Norwegian attitudes toward Israel, Jews, and Judaism is complicated.

Anyone who has spent time in Norway will have experienced that Norwegians by and large are hospitable, well-meaning, and curious. We are unashamedly idealistic about equal rights, openness, and freedom. The Oslo accords remain one of the foreign ministry’s greatest achievements, and the wish for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a genuine, official, and perpetual goal of government after government.

The key to understanding Norway’s attitudes toward Israel is in realizing that the debate about the Arab-Israel conflict – or what is often called “the Palestine question” is above all a domestic issue. The narrative about the conflict is integrated into a broader narrative about Western colonialism and imperialism, the last vestige of leftist dogma about American bad intentions during the Cold War. Images of lopsided military engagements in Gaza and Lebanon, separation barriers and concrete walls, checkpoints, and the stark contrast between Israeli and Palestinian daily life, all reinforce the view that there is only one valid version of history, namely the one of Palestinian displacement and suffering at the hands of Zionists who at best lack compassion and at worst are evil ideologues.

It matters little whether this story finds any reasonable support in actual facts: the leftists have made it a part of their cathecism and will loudly denounce anyone who strays from it.

This view is so entrenched that the only foreign policy slogan in the largest May Day parade in Norway was “Boycott Israel.”

Throughout all this and especially after the Miryam Shomrat gaffe, Israeli diplomats have been at great pains to remain (some might say, uncharacteristically) polite. Both countries seek cultural exchange with each other, and there is probably considerable contact on security matters.

In the last several years the Norwegian foreign ministry has realized that indulging the domestic, insular debate undermines Norway’s diplomatic credibility not just with Israel, but also with NATO allies and the EU.

This has led to a widening disparity between the public rhetoric of the Norwegian government (which is mostly critical of Israel) and the private discussions (which seem to be more respectful and amicable) between the two countries. Espen Barth-Eide (Labour) was the first foreign minister to seek to narrow that gap, tempering his (mostly critical) remarks about Israel with greater understanding of Israel’s challenges. The new Conservative coalition government has similarly promised greater “balance” in its policy toward Israel.

Peres’s state visit is a part of a broader effort to mend fences between the countries, a gesture to Israel that at least at a cabinet level, the Norwegian government wishes a constructive and friendly relationship. This is nothing to sneeze at.

But the two disparities: between Norwegian public and private diplomacy toward Israel; and between Norwegian political orthodoxy about Israel and the real world, will likely persist in spite of these efforts. And this will continue to create a problem for any government’s political mandate when it comes to Israel.

The established narrative and imagery is simply too appealing: the irony of Palestinians playing the role of David to Israel’s Goliath; concrete walls; poverty and stagnation vs wealth and development; combat jets vs home-made rockets; all make for easily digestible news, “analysis,” and a feeling of superiority: Norwegians often succumb to the conceit that we have peace and prosperity in the north because we earned it.

So it takes more than magnanimous gestures like today’s visit to make things right, and here are three suggestions:

  • Every Norwegian political party needs to conduct a full review of its position on Israel, the Palestinians, and the entire Middle East region to assess whether it a) builds on reasonable premises, and b) is likely to be constructive in resolving the various conflicts
  • The universities need to significantly upgrade their capabilities on this issue, building stronger relationships with leading research institutions in Israel, the U.S., the EU, and elsewhere. Significantly, doctorates and tenured positions should be comparable to academic requirements in other universities.
  • Newspaper editors need to more scrupulously solicit – if necessary by way of translation – alternative views than those now presented. They should also make an extra effort to encourage media criticism of existing coverage. NRK and NTB would especially be served by doing a complete re-boot of their Middle East desks.

It is unlikely any of these things will happen. More likely, the disparities will grow until they become intolerable – Norway’s foreign policy may lose all relevance and credibility on the issue, and anyone who cares about the issue will learn to ignore the Norwegian press coverage of it.

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