After years of tensions between Israel and Norway, the Israeli government has responded by sending a new ambassador to Oslo who’s a non-Jewish professor and poet of Arab background. Naim Araidi has told Israeli media that he’s looking forward to his new assignment.
Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Friday that Araidi believes both he and his new incoming deputy at the Israeli Embassy, Palestinian-Israeli career diplomat George Deek, will play an “important role” in clarifying Israeli politics. “We’ll be coming with a message of coexistence,” said Araidi, who’s best known as a poet and Druze professor of Hebrew literature in Israel.
His appointment is widely viewed as a means of improving relations between Norway and Israel after Israel’s two most recent ambassadors both sparked controversy on a variety of issues, not least involving the bombing of Gaza and even local zoning disputes. After years of relatively warm relations between the governments of Norway and Israel in the early 1990s, tensions rose with the more recent governments in Tel Aviv and over stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Even Jewish leaders in Oslo have felt obliged at times to distance themselves from the embassy and Israeli politics, amidst recent signs of anti-Semitism in Norway.
Now Jewish leaders in Oslo are welcoming the upcoming personnel changes at the Israeli Embassy. “This is exciting and we have great expectations,” Ervin Kohn, leader of Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (DMT) in Oslo, told newspaper Aftenposten. He stressed that the majority of DMT members in Oslo are Norwegians and the changes at the embassy don’t affect the Jewish community directly, but the new ambassador can help send a signal that Israel is a pluralistic society.
“Israel is a Jewish state, so appointing a Druze as ambassador and a Christian Arab (Deek) as his deputy says a lot about Israel,” Kohn told Aftenposten.
Araidi, age 62, is a respected professor and writer born in a small Israeli village whose poems in both Hebrew and Arabic have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He teaches regular classes at the Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew literature in 2008.
Araidi told media in Israel that he personally will come to Norway with a message tied to culture and literature, “and I hope this will strengthen our ties.” He said he doesn’t think Norwegians are hostile towards Israel, even though an Israeli newspaper reported this week that a survey conducted for the Israeli Embassy in Oslo showed that many Norwegians have come to view Israelis as racist, aggressive and extreme in recent years. Norwegians reacted strongly, for example, to the bombing of Gaza in 2009.
The Times of Israel called the new diplomatic duo in Oslo “unconventional,” but Israeli authorities claimed Araidi’s appointment was not unusual. “It’s only people who have an abnormal relation to Israel who will view this as abnormal,” spokeman Rigal Palmor told Dagsavisen. “Until recently, for example, Israel’s ambassador in Finland was an Arab.” It’s also not the first time Israel has appointed a Druze as ambassador, with the Times noting that Israeli ambassadors to both Vietnam and Ecuador have been Druze.
Araidi, seemingly eager to ease tensions between Israel and Norway, said “there will always be disagreements” between the two countries, “but there are many areas where we agree. We want coexistence and we hope Norway will support us here.”
As late as April, Araidi was appointed to be Israel’s new ambassador to New Zealand and said at the time that “after years of representing the State of Israel unofficially, it would be a great privilege for me to do so in an official capacity and show Israel’s beautiful side, as well as the coexistence that despite all the hardships can only be maintained in a true democracy.”
Now he’s coming to Norway instead, after a decision by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In connection with the New Zealand appointment last spring, the Times quoted Liberman as saying that Araidi “represents the beautiful face of Israel, in which a talented person, irrespective of religion or sector, can reach the highest places on merit, and be an inspiration for all Israelis. I am convinced that he will honor the State of Israel as an ambassador as he did as a writer.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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