Outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres began a two-day state visit to Norway on Monday, amidst tight security, a royal welcome and scheduled protest demonstrations later in the day. The visit is widely viewed as another attempt to ease tense relations that have arisen between Norway and Israel in recent years.
The elder statesman and Nobel Laureate, now age 90 and due to step down in June, arrived in Oslo on Sunday and made his first public appearance at the local synagogue, where he spoke about peace. He claimed that the chances for peace between Israelis and the Palestinians aren’t over. “Neither we nor the Palestinians have any other alternative than peace,” Peres told his audience, which included veteran Norwegian diplomat Terje Rød-Larsen, who was among those to form the landmark if unsuccessful Oslo Agreement in the 1990s.
Despite years of efforts and major investment of time and money, Norway’s hopes of helping achieve peace in the Middle East have been dashed repeatedly along with those of other international peace brokers. More than a decade of conservative governments in Israel have clashed with Norway’s governments, especially those led by the Labour Party, and Norway has opposed Israel’s ongoing settlements in Palestinian territory. Israeli leaders were furious when Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party was among the first to meet with the Palestianians’ elected leaders, during the early years of the last Labour-led government, and Norway has often been branded as anti-Semitic in Israel because of its criticism of the Israeli government.
Now, with a new Conservatives-led government in Norway that includes the pro-Israel Progress Party, there’s been a new effort to thaw frosty relations with Israel. Peres, who has been in Norway several times and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his own efforts to secure peace with the Palestinians, is also known as a more moderate politician faced thorny Middle East issues. He’s served as prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, finance minister and transport minister in various Israeli governments over the years.
There were no noisy protests Monday morning as King Harald officially received Peres on the grounds of the Royal Palace. The royal reception had all the formal trappings of honour guards, red carpets, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess in attendance and school children waving Israeli flags. as security forces looked on and ceremonial canons boomed in the background from the nearby Akershus Fortress. Peres’ state visit is the first by an Israeli head of state to Norway and he personally has had decades of contact with Norwegian leaders, so it was clear that the Norwegians wanted to greet him with respect.
Around 50 smiling members of the Israeli support group Med Israel for fred (MIFF – With Israel for Peace) were also in place on the palace grounds, after wishing Peres a “warm welcome” through full-page ads MIFF had bought in local newspapers on Monday. “We’re here to show that we value the (Israeli) president’s visit,” MIFF leader Conrad Myrland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “We’re also glad the royal family and the government invited him.”
Others had a different view, worrying that Peres’ state visit will put King Harald in a difficult spot if the Norwegian royal couple receives, as customary, a reciprocal invitation to visit Israel. A return visit by a head of state to a country that has broken the most UN resolutions would be viewed as highly controversial.
“It’s completely unacceptable that the Norwegian government has invited the Israeli president, who is the head of state for an occupying power that on a daily basis enforces brutal apartheid policies against the Palestinian people,” Dr Mads Gilbert, who has worked as a surgeon in Gaza on many occasions, told news bureau NTB.
Leaders of the Socialist Left and Reds parties, the Labour Party’s youth group, the Palestine Committee, the labour organization Handel og Kontor and the humanitarian group Norsk Folkehjelp (Norwegian People’s Aid) were all among the groups organizing a protest demonstration set for 5pm Monday in front of the Norwegian Parliament. They’re protesting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and violations of UN resolutions and the rule of law. They’re also calling for an end to the Israelis’ blockade of Gaza.
Lunches and dinner
Their protest will take place shortly before King Harald hosts a gala banquet in Peres’ honour at the Royal Palace Monday evening. Before that, Peres and King Harald would take part in wreath-laying ceremonies at Norway’s national monument at Akershus and Peres was due to meet with the president of Norway’s Parliament Olemic Thommessen (who refused to meet the Dalai Lama in Oslo last week). The king was also hosting a luncheon for Peres on Monday, in addition to the formal evening banquet.
On Tuesday Peres was due to visit the Nobel Institute and deliver a lecture, and the government was hosting a luncheon in his honour at the Akershus Castle inside the old fortress walls.