Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre flew right into a hornets’ nest of new tensions in the Middle East this week, as he made the rounds of visits to leaders in Israel, Jordan and Mokatah, the government complex for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The fall of the government in Lebanon, though, throws the entire area into new uncertainty.
Israeli forces were on high alert Thursday after the Lebanese government collapsed on Wednesday. The Israeli authorities fear that political unrest in Lebanon can lead to more violence along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen reported from the West Bank that Støre met with Middle Eastern leaders before the government in Beirut fell, hoping to push forward peace talks between Israel and a Palestinian state that Norway believes can emerge later this year. Norway is ready to recognize it, but events in Lebanon can delay the process once again.
“We hope to see progress,” said Støre at a press conference in Ramallah with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He still hopes a Palestinian state can be declared in August or September, which Norway will support. “We’re working to develop the Palestinian economy so they can reach their goal,” said Støre, who has been leading the group of donor countries for the Palestinians.
Støre also met Israeli leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, with Dagsavisen reporting that he then flew in a helicopter from the roof of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) to the royal palace in Jordan. From there he flew to Mokatah, to meet Abbas.
“If we don’t get a Palestinian state during 2011, it will have consequences for the political climate for Israel,” Støre said. “The Israelis themselves are aware that their image is in trouble, and the leaders fear that if a two-state solution collapses, Israel will be stuck with an apartheid image.”
Støre complained that “everyone thinks they’re talking together all the time, but in fact they’re not. And we are among the few who now have intense contact with the parties involved.”
Recent US diplomatic cables released through WikiLeaks indicate that the US has downplayed Norway’s role in the Mideast peace process, and perhaps tried to marginalize it, but Støre clearly is keen on keeping it vigorous.
“Netanyahu says he wants to negotiate, so then we’ll wait and see if he will deliver,” Støre said. His time plan is based on establishment of Palestinian state institutions by this fall, and US President Barack Obama has pledged support. Dagsavisen reported that Fayyad has replaced guerrilla soldiers with businessmen and academicians to help move the process forward.