‘Nostalgia’ around role in Mideast

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UPDATED: As Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre made the rounds in Israel and Palestinian areas this week, he initially seemed to be among those agreeing that Norway has given up its earlier role as a behind-the-scenes bridge-builder in the Middle East. Now he claims that Norway remains committed to helping both sides finally find some peace.

Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere speaks to the media during a news conference at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City August 16, 2010. The Palestinian Authority's budget is in the red and donors should make good on pledges to fill the gap, said Stoere, who chairs a donor group that backs the Palestinian government. To match Interview PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL/NORWAY   REUTERS/Suhaib Salem (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

Støre clearly wasn’t at peace himself with an article in newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday, in which several diplomats and politicians suggested that Norway’s backroom bridge-building days were over.

He had told Aftenposten on Tuesday that Norway doesn’t want to interfere with other peace-brokering efforts, but he insisted on Wednesday that Norway remains a “trusted partner” in efforts to strike an accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

Looming talks expected between the Israelis and Palestinians will be led by the US, and Støre says that’s as it should be. “Negotiations will be demanding,” he told newspaper Aftenposten earlier. Now he adds that there’s a degree of “nostalgia” around Norway’s central involvement in Mideast peace talks in the early- and mid-1990s.

Norwegian diplomats played a major role in formation of the so-called Oslo Agreement of 1993, which once was considered a breakthrough regarding prospects for Palestinian self-rule but since has been hotly contested. In those days, Norway’s Labour Party had close ties with its Israeli equivalent in power at the time, and the Norwegians enjoyed confidence from both sides.

Now much has changed, not least the political situation within Israel. In 1992 and 1993, when Norway arranged a series of secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, the two longtime enemies “couldn’t meet openly,” recalls Jan Egeland, the former UN official and Norwegian diplomat who was directly involved in the Oslo Agreement. “We must remember that back then, Israelis could be put in prison for having contact with the PLO,” Egeland told Aftenposten.

Ine Eriksen Søreide of Norway’s Conservative Party says Norway’s best contribution now is as head of the group of donor countries backing the Palestinian government. It’s Støre’s leadership in that group that took him to the Middle East this week.

“Both sides and the Americans are well aware of Norway’s long-term commitment to peace in the Middle East,” Støre told Aftenposten on Tuesday. “If there’s something we’re asked to contribute, based on our experience, we of course will do so. But we don’t want to make this any harder for the Americans by proposing what our contribution might be.”

He added on Wednesday that there’s a “new agenda” today and Norway remains engaged in confidential talks, but considers itself a “partner” instead of a “broker.”

Grave concerns about Gaza
Støre visited Gaza on Monday and claimed there’d been some progress in making life better for the Palestinians, but noted they still suffer under the Israeli blockade and Støre wants to see more construction materials let in, to further rebuilding efforts after the war nearly two years ago. 

Støre also urged donor countries to make good on promises of more aid to the Palestinians. Norway was among the first countries to meet with Hamas leaders after they did well in elections, but Støre did not meet with any Hamas leaders on this trip. He stressed that the donor group has been supporting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s institution-building projects on the West Bank, to prepare for a Palestinian state that would also encompass Gaza.

Støre headed back to Israel on Tuesday for more meetings with Israeli leaders, and repeated predictions that talks between the Israelis and Palestinians were imminent. Hamas opposes talks, leaving the Palestinian side divided itself.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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