The Palestinians' Best Friend

No Western statesman has done more to promote the cause of Palestinian statehood than the charismatic Foreign Minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Store, a Labour politician who enjoys unrivalled popularity in his own country. Yet all his efforts over the past several years in favour of the Palestinians have ended in failure. He has been defeated by Israeli intransigence, by US President Barack Obama’s collapse under Israeli pressure, and by Palestinian disunity.
After the Oslo peace accords of 1993, Norway felt it had a responsibility to see the peace process through to a satisfactory conclusion. It felt that its role was to bring a Palestinian state to life. But this depended on securing Israel’s agreement as well as American backing. Neither was forthcoming.
Norwegians distinguish between two parallel tracks of the peace process: a so-called top-down political track led by the United States which is meant to tackle final status issues such as borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem; and a bottom-up track, led by Norway, which has focussed on mobilising donors to help the Palestinians build the institutions of a state.
Foreign Minister Store has himself for years chaired a donors support group dedicated to this task. By preparing the Palestinians for statehood he hoped to counter Israel’s argument that it had no Palestinian partner for peace. His strategy was to present Israel with a fait accompli in the form of a virtual Palestinian state.
The Foreign Minister explained his position to me in an interview in Oslo on 19 June. “We had hoped,” he said, “that the top-down and bottom-up tracks would meet. We worked with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in helping him build the institutions of a state.
“The Palestinians had reached the threshold of a state in September 2011 when they made their bid for UN membership -- only to be disappointed. Europe should have spoken with a clearer voice. What Israel is doing is against international law, and against its own interests. The two-state solution is fading away. We are today facing a very dangerous situation.
“The Palestinians are suffering a double tragedy -- the tragedy of living under occupation, and the tragedy of being divided. In 2007, we decided to engage with the Palestinian national unity government. But the European Union made the mistake of deciding not to engage.
“We in Norway are prepared to talk to all Palestinian groups, including Hamas, even though we do not recognise its charter, which we find deeply disturbing. We are in favour of Palestinian national reconciliation.”
I asked the Foreign Minister whether he aspired to play a leading role in the Peace process, as Norway had played at the time of the Oslo accords:
“We have no nostalgia for such a leading role. In a world of deficits, we are fortunate in having an economic and a political surplus. We are simply looking for places where we can make a difference, with no strings attached. We have no second agenda. We are not there to put pressure on anyone but merely to mobilise networks for causes we believe in.”
I asked him how he viewed the rise of Islamist movements across the Arab world:
“It would be the height of hypocrisy,” he replied, “if we saluted the ballot box but refused its result. We must accept the results of the ballot box. But we must also hold accountable any majority which might emerge from elections. Any such majority must abide by international human rights standards.
“Countries like Egypt, which need to attract investment, must strive to be accountable and transparent. It is important to reduce the risk for investors. Who will invest in a country if there is a lack of transparency as well as a suspicion of corruption?”
It is well known that Foreign Minister Store engaged very early on with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. His policy has always been to engage with all actors, without necessarily endorsing their policies. To engage is a key principle of the foreign policy of Norway’s current centre-left government which came to power in 2005 and was re-elected in 2009.
The donors’ committee which the Foreign Minister chairs is called the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, or AHLC. Established after the Oslo peace accords, its task has been to mobilise financial support for Palestinian state-building.
The institutions Norway has helped create include security institutions dedicated to preventing attacks on Israel. But this has become a source of embarrassment for President Abbas. He was seen as doing Israel’s work without reaping any political reward in the form of progress towards statehood.
Norway supported Palestinian unity although it was well aware that Israel would not deal with any Palestinian government that included Hamas. It would withhold taxes it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and the United States would cut its aid. So, rather than encouraging Hamas to join a unity government, Norway’s policy has been to mobilise financial support for the PA. It has preferred to leave to Egypt the task of reconciling the various Palestinian factions.
Norway has frequently warned Israel that if it refused to move forward with the political process, it would face donor fatigue, and might itself have to assume responsibility for the West Bank Palestinians. But Israel has called Norway’s bluff. It has continued its relentless seizure of Palestinian land while counting on foreign donors to continue to finance the PA.
The Quartet -- and the United States, its main power broker -- failed to pressure Israel to consent to Palestinian statehood. Obama’s collapse was a huge disappointment for the Palestinians but also for Norway, which had invested so much in the creation of Palestinian institutions.
The AHLC activities reached their peak at the time the Palestinians made their UN bid for recognition of their state, But the United States killed it. The inescapable conclusion is that the AHLC no longer has a role to play in parallel with the political track of the peace process. This goes some way to explaining the foreign minister’s judgement that the present situation is one of extreme danger.
My interview with the Foreign Minister took place during this year’s Oslo Forum, a leading international gathering of mediators, now in its tenth year. Among the participants was the Burmese Nobel Prize winner, Aung Saan Su Kyi who called for change by non-violent means. Even though she spent decades under house arrest by the military, she said she admired the Burmese army -- which her father had helped found. She also said she had confidence in the humanity of her captors!
The Norwegian Foreign Minister summed up the message of the Oslo Forum by declaring that “Dialogue is the strategy of the brave.” It is a message the Syrian regime and its opponents would be wise to ponder. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global