US opens doors to Solberg & Søreide

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Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, fresh from her first official trip to the Middle East, was heading for Washington DC on Tuesday where she’ll team up with Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Together they’ll be having meetings on Wednesday with US President Donald Trump and all three of Trump’s men responsible for defense and foreign policy. The Norwegian leaders’ agenda is clear as they try to retain common ground with a US Administration that’s unpredictable at best.

Norway’s new Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has just made her first official trip to the Middle East, which included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, later, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“It’s important to concentrate on what the US is actually doing,” Søreide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday morning, instead of on all the “tweets” coming from Trump. Søreide’s message has also been sent out by US officials themselves, in an effort to reassure European leaders who are struggling with puzzling and often contradictory messages from Trump himself.

Søreide told newspaper Aftenposten Tuesday that she looked forward to meet not only Trump (her first encounter with the US’ arguably most controversial president of all time, and Solberg’s third) but also Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor HR McMaster. Søreide has met with Tillerson and Mattis before, and now all three have made room in their schedules to meet her again. One NATO diplomat in Brussels told Aftenposten that the American men, especially Mattis, have been impressed with the always well-prepared Søreide when she was Norway’s defense minister.

“The US is our most important ally, our relationship is fundamentally important for us,” Søreide told Aftenposten. “Defense and security cooperation is the most important starting point (for the talks in Washington), but it’s much broader than that.” Søreide claimed that despite the turbulence of the Trump Administration during the past year, the US and Norway continue to have “tight cooperation and dialogue at all levels.”

She said talks this week will include developments in Russia and her “fresh impressions” after two days in the Middle East. Prime Minister Solberg’s Norwegian government was not at all happy with Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, stressing that Norway still urges a two-state solution that provides a stable homeland for Palestinians, and ensures access to Jerusalem. Søreide got lots of feedback on the Jerusalem issue from both sides.

Foreign Minister Søreide will be arriving in Washington fresh from talks that she claims indicated willingness to restart long-stalled peace talks. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

She met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu  and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, along with other ministers and Israel’s president, and she claimed they were all receptive to her call to resume negotiations on a two-state solution. She told NRK after both meetings were concluded that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders want Norway to help arrange what could be a new round of peace talks, and that Norway is ready to take up the challenge although she admitted any such solution was “a long way off.”

Norway is in an advantageous position as leader of the international donor group for the Palestinians that can offer needed funding at a time when Trump is threatening to cut off the US’ own financial support. The Palestinians have likened Trump’s threat to “extortion,” and thus seem more willing than ever to listen to others, like Søreide and her supporters.

“It’s clearly a difficult situation, with no easy solutions,” Søreide told NRK. “It’s never been and it won’t come to be, but we have an interest in trying to restart (peace) talks again, along with the other donors.” Søreide has already remarked that the US threat to cut aid to the Palestinians “is not a sensible line” to take. “So the Americans have to answer what they think about that,” Søreide said.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, shown here delivering her New Year’s address to the nation, was also looking forward to meet US President Donald Trump on Wednesday. A Norwegian press corps will be along for the visit. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

While Solberg was flying to the US from Oslo on Tuesday, Søreide is in the midst of a whirlwind international week that’s taken her from Oslo to the Middle East and directly on to Washington. She’ll also be back in North America next week, because Norway was also invited to participate in a summit in Vancouver, Canada to discuss the situation regarding North Korea.

Both US and Canadian leaders want Søreide at more meetings in Canada’s British Columbia on January 16, where she’ll speak once again with the US’ Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. The latter has invited all countries who took part in or offered help during the Korean War, when Norway had a field hospital operation from 1951 to 1954.

Søreide, meanwhile, “has very high standing” in the international circles where Norway is active, according to Svein Melby, a senior researcher at Norway’s institute for defense studies. “That’s been the case from the start when she was defense minister,” Melby told Aftenposten. “When she was named foreign minister (last fall), it was viewed as very positive in Washington.” He called Søreide “a person with high credibility in the security policy milieu in Washington.”

Prime Minister Solberg, meanwhile, has been at the White House before and was also looking forward to a longer conversation with Trump. Solberg and Søreide will be visiting just after the release of a controversial book that infuriated Trump and set off more concerns about his state of mind.

“The most important thing will be to remain calm and meet him with respect on even terms and in a direct manner,” Solberg told news bureau NTB this week. “That’s how I meet all people, whether they’re the presidents of France, China or the US.” The US’ agenda includes defense and security policy, NATO, the coalition against the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS), and some trade and business issues.

Solberg is also determined to bring up climate issues and international peace processes, where Norway and the US now have some sharply different views. “I will outline Norway’s views and that it’s important to follow up the Paris Agreement (to fight climate change).” Solberg told NTB it was “completely natural” to bring that up, after Trump moved to pull the US out of the Paris pact that’s been backed by most of the rest of the world.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund