Foreign Minister on Mid-East tour

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If this is Tuesday, it must be Abu Dhabi. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is in the midst of a whirlwind diplomatic tour to the Middle East, tackling such difficult issues as Israeli settlements, funding for the Palestinians, oil and climate issues and even justice for a Norwegian student suspected of being murdered by a man from Yemen. Støre met one of Yemen’s government ministers in the United Arab Emirates.

Støre flew out of Oslo before dawn Saturday morning and has been maintaining a typically hectic pace ever since, with an itinerary that calls for visiting five countries in five days.

His first stop was Jordan, where newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that the prince who was supposed to meet him didn’t turn up, but a meeting was held shortly after landing with Foreign Minister Naser Joudeh. He reportedly did what he could to get Støre’s Mid-East tour off to a good start, claiming that Norway has played an “exceptional” role in the region.

Støre himself has downplayed Norway’s role in the Middle East, saying it’s not what it once was. Back in the early 1990s, when Støre’s diplomatic colleagues at the time hammered out the so-called “Oslo Agreement” for peace, Norway “was in the right place at the right time,” he told DN. “That was another era. That type of role is not something we seek or naturally have today.”That doesn’t stop the Norwegians from staying involved in the stalled peace process, though, and Norway currently heads the key donor group for the Palestinians. Some commentators claim Norway is using its oil wealth to buy a place among the bigger players, but its interest in finally seeing peace in the Middle East is sincere.

After his stop in Jordan, Støre flew into more hostile territory, meeting his critical counterpart in Tel Aviv, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (photo above) . The Israeli foreign minister has been harshly criticizing Norway for months: Israel doesn’t like Norway’s contact with Hamas, Norway’s own criticism of Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, even Norway’s celebration last year of one of its most famous authors, Knut Hamsun. Lieberman claimed once again that no one should celebrate Hamsun, who emerged with Nazi sympathies before and during World War II and wrote a flattering obituary for Adolph Hitler.

Støre said before his meeting with Lieberman that “I can live with quite fresh expressions of opinion,” and both men ended up publicly claiming that relations between Norway and Israel were “good.” Not without disagreements, reported newspaper Dagsavisen , but a relation “between friends.” The two also met privately on Sunday and Støre said he expressed Norway’s concern for the human rights of Mordechai Vanunu, who exposed Israel’s development of atomic weapons. “I said that after serving his prison term, he should be a free man” Støre told Dagsavisen .

Støre also visited Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before moving on to Abu Dhabi and the World Future Energy Summit, a conference on renewable energy.

While there he met a government minister from Yemen, Awadh Said al-Socotri, and said he took up the issue of Martine Vik Magnussen, a Norwegian student murdered in London nearly two years ago. British police have charged one of her fellow students with the crime, but he fled the UK and is believed to be hiding in Yemen, which has no extradition treaty with either the UK or Norway.

The Yemen minister confirmed he was aware of the murder charges against Farouk Abdulhak, son of one of Yemen’s wealthiest men, but that Yemen could not extradite him. Yemen has offered to bring him to trial in Yemen, but both Norway and the UK oppose that solution because Yemen practices the death penalty.

Støre, under pressure from Magnussen’s friends and family in Norway to win justice for the young woman, said he would also discuss the case with his British counterpart David Miliband when the two meet in London next week, during an international conference on Afghanistan.

Støre was to end his Middle East tour in Egypt.