The Oslo Accords, Blame It on Norway
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Oslo Accords saga lies in the fact that it was Norway — a country culturally and geographically remote from the Middle East and relatively marginal in the arena of international politics — that managed to shape and lead a secret channel between two historical enemies in the Middle East.
Jane Corbin’s book Gaza First and Hilde Henriksen Waage’s extensive monograph Norwegians? Who needs Norwegians? offer a detailed account of Norway’s ties with Israel and the PLO, both before and during the secret negotiations that culminated in the Oslo agreement.
During the preceding four decades, this Nordic nation had maintained fluid relations with Israel, and during the previous two decades it had cultivated close links with the PLO. Initially, Norway saw the Jewish state as a pacifist country in a state of permanent existential threat, to the point that on several occasions, the Norwegian Labor Party launched pro-Israel campaigns with the eloquent slogan “Let Israel live.”
Likewise, Israel’s original socialist orientation expressed in the kibbutz movement aroused admiration and sympathy among the Norwegian people and political establishment.
But after the Six-Day War, Norway became more critical of Israel, especially the new generation of left-wing politicians, who viewed the Palestinian cause more sympathetically. Particularly vocal in this sense was the Youth Organization of the Labor Party (AUF), whose members would later be instrumental in the creation of the secret channel between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Some of the AUF members were passionate defenders of PLO doctrine, as documented in a book authored by Haakon Lie, a former Secretary of the Norwegian Labor Party.
For example, Bjorn Tore Godal, a future Foreign Minister, in his capacity as president of the AUF, approved the following statement in 1971: “The AUF will support the forces fighting for the social and national liberation of the Palestinian people. The condition for a lasting peace must be that Israel cease to exist as a Jewish state and that a progressive Palestinian state be established where all ethnic groups can live side by side in complete equality.”
Terje Rod Larsen, who would later have a central role in the secret Oslo channel, wrote in 1977, as a member of the editorial committee of The Palestine News: “No to a two-state solution … we support the battle for the liberation of all Palestine.”
As the traditional pro-Israeli position yielded to the emerging pro-Palestinian orientation, Norway’s relations with the PLO expanded gradually but appreciably. During the first half of the 1970s, there were informal contacts with the PLO; afterwards, they were actively promoted.
Especially diligent in establishing ties with the hierarchy of the Palestinian organization was Hans Willhelm Longva, Norwegian ambassador to Lebanon in 1978, and later ambassador to Kuwait. From his post in Beirut, Longva established contact with Yasser Arafat, developed a good relationship with the Palestinian leader, and was involved in future mediation efforts.
In 1974 Norway voted in favor of inviting Arafat to speak at the United Nations, although months later, it voted against granting observer status to the PLO (this was partly due to the negative impact at home of the first decision). By the end of the 1970s, a pro-Palestinian trend was clear: Norwegian politicians, diplomats, and military men were having meetings with high-ranking PLO officials.
By the early 1980s, Norway was firmly on the path marked by other European socialist parties, especially in Austria and Sweden, in terms of relations with the PLO. The head of the Norwegian Labor Party, Reiulf Steen, met with Arafat in December 1982. Two weeks later, an official Labor delegation visited Tunisia. Among those who spent time with Arafat were Knut Frydenlund, a former chancellor, and Thorvald Stoltenberg, a future chancellor.
In April 1983, Arafat traveled to Stockholm to meet with Scandinavian Social Democratic leaders, among them then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. She later said: “I have found in Arafat an interesting and knowledgeable person. I have not met an extremist.” In January 1989, Stoltenberg made the first official visit by a Norwegian Foreign Minister to Tunisia, where the PLO headquarters were located. Since then, relations have flourished.
In light of such public displays of pro-Palestinian sympathies, it is not surprising that when the Swedish Socialist Party lost power in 1991, the outgoing Chancellor, Sean Anderson, a man with strong ties to the PLO, told the Norwegian State Secretary Jan Egeland that Sweden was passing the torch to Norway. Nor is it surprising that Arafat green-lighted Norwegian participation in the secret back channel talks, or that prominent Palestinian figures involved, such as Mahmoud Abbas and Abu Ala, “talked in lyrical fashion while flattering the Norwegians,” as one author put it.
In the early 1990s, Norway was deeply involved in the creation of one of the most significant agreements in contemporary Middle East diplomacy. A quarter century later, Israelis and Palestinians are still suffering its consequences.
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentinean writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs.