Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been in Oslo this week, where he launched a new drive towards statehood by signing an agreement with Norway that upgrades the Palestinians’ representative office in Oslo to an embassy. Norway remained non-committal, though, towards formally recognizing a new Palestinian state in the United Nations.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who has long been active in efforts to resolve the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis over territory, signed the embassy agreement with Abbas. He supports the Palestinians’ right to seek recognition from the UN and disagrees with opposition politicians in Norway who claim Abbas’ latest initiative will hinder further negotiations with the Israelis.
Abbas was moving on from Norway to France, Spain and Turkey, where he also planned to establish full-fledged embassies, while other Palestinian representatives are visiting China, India, Vietnam, Australia, new Zealand, Canada, Russia, Bosnia and Portugal with the same errand. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that the initiative that’s begun in Norway is carefully planned to formally acquire broad international support for the Palestinians’ desire and need for their own state. Israel declared its own independent state in 1948 and expanded its territory during the six-day war in 1967.
The conflict remains over borders, not least since Israel continues to expand into disputed areas through its controversial settlements. The Israeli government approved building more than 300 new homes in the disputed West Bank just this week. The Palestinians, themselves split between Abbas’ supporters and Hamas in Gaza, seek full UN recognition of a Palestinian state within the borders prior to the war in 1967, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The US, Israel’s biggest supporter for decades, also believes in principle that the borders from 1967 should be the starting point for establishment of a Palestinian state, but it also recognizes the current realities in the area. They include the roughly 500,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank who aren’t willing to give up their claims to the land, even though many foreign government regard them as illegal occupants of Palestinian territory.
Støre stressed that Norway believes a solution for the Palestinians must be based on negotiations, but told reporters on Monday that it’s “completely legitimate” for the Palestinians to request clarification from the UN. Since full membership in the UN requires approval of the UN Security Council, where the US or another country may exercise its veto power, the Palestinians could also request recognition in the UN General Assembly without seeking full UN membership.
Opposition politicians in Norway claim Støre’s support for the Palestinians’ UN initiative can further hurt the chance of negotiations with the Israelis. “I hope the foreign minister makes it clear that this is symbolic politics,” Morten Høglund of the conservative Progress Party told Aftenposten.no. “Peace in the Middle East needs to be found in another way.”
Høglund met with Abbas on Monday, however, along with the rest of the Parliament’s foreign relations committee. So did other skeptics from the Christian Democrats and the Conservative parties, with the latter suggesting that Norway should wait for a resolution in the UN before making moves to recognize a Palestinian state. Dagfinn Høybråten of the Christian Democrats claimed the left-center government of which Støre is a member has changed course. “And we don’t think that will advance a solution,” Høybråten said.
Bård Vegard Solhjell of the Socialist Left party (SV), a member of the government coalition, noted, though, that “since it’s been impossible to get Israel to go along with the most simple things, like stopping the ongoing settlements or coming to the negotiating table, it’s necessary to put more power behind the (Palestinians’) demands.”
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