OpinionMiddle East

Norway’s standing as a Middle East mediator is about to collapse

Unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state would make it all but impossible for Norway to play a role in the region.

Mona Juul, Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations and president of the Security Council for the month of January 2022, chairs the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East (Yemen). Credit: U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe.
Mona Juul, Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations and president of the Security Council for the month of January 2022, chairs the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East (Yemen). Credit: U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe.
Nir Levitan
Nir Levitan is a lecturer and research fellow at the Europa Institute at Bar-Ilan University and an affiliate fellow at the Center for Koldkrigsstudier at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of Scandinavian Diplomacy and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Norway, Ireland and Spain recently announced that they will recognize a Palestinian state on May 28. This prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz to summon the countries’ ambassadors for consultations.

The Norwegian prime minister announced the decision following a poignant parliamentary debate. The move signals that Norway’s long-held position as a Middle East mediator is on the brink of collapse. The Norwegian government still serves as a financial intermediary between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but now risks losing that status and operating with a lower profile.

Signs of this shift have been evident since the current Norwegian government, known for its activist stance, took office. One of these signs included the provision of NOK 275 million (approximately $2.3 million) to UNRWA. However, this move was accompanied by comments from Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Eide about the need for a thorough investigation into UNRWA personnel’s involvement in the Oct. 7 massacre.

Norway has made attempts to host hostage negotiations and is a significant contributor to the Palestinian Authority. It has thus leveraged its economic resources to maintain a high political profile in the Middle East. Norway’s desire to maintain this influence led it to avoid imposing a boycott on Israel. It chose instead to use generous economic aid policies to strengthen Norway’s position.

Norway’s mediation policies led it to open communication channels with Hamas when it came to power in Gaza. It continued to support Palestinian infrastructure development, mainly through power plant and water desalination facilities in Gaza. However, some of the projects it supported were suspected of engaging in anti-Israel incitement.

Norway’s goal was to lay the groundwork for future involvement in Gaza’s reconstruction. Officially, it has never engaged in direct talks with Hamas, but Prime Minister Jonas Støre revealed in a 2011 interview that he had held telephone conversations with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. By October 2023, he was indicating that his government would be willing to engage directly with Hamas if necessary. After Oct. 7, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry refrained from issuing a strong condemnation of Hamas and even prevented a statement of condemnation from the King of Norway. All this was in keeping with Norway’s larger ambition of involvement in reconstruction.

However, Norway’s current stance limits its political options and may preclude any direct involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would represent a major shift away from Norway’s historical role in mediating contacts between the parties, which it has maintained since 1993. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Norwegian embassy in Cairo facilitated fundraising for a Palestinian police force under U.N. auspices. Israel agreed to increase U.N. involvement through UNRWA and UNESCO. Norwegian academic and diplomat Terje Rød-Larsen presided over the U.N. liaison mechanism and mediated between the two parties.

In the end, Norway guaranteed NOK 16 million ($1.5 million) for the establishment of a P.A. police force. Norway also assisted in developing the Palestinian Development and Construction Council and promoted similar initiatives as part of the Palestinian Development Plan (PDP). The PDP, presented to a group of donor countries called the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), committed to enforcing previous agreements and fulfilling political conditions in exchange for economic aid.

Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the donor group and later held the key position of U.N. envoy to the Middle East. Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland, who was also involved in the Oslo process, serves as the U.N.’s current special envoy to the Middle East.

By 1998, Norwegian aid totaled $1.9 billion, nearly double the amount earmarked for the Palestinians over five years. As chair of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), the international donor group, Norway coordinated international support. In 2023, Norway’s support to the Palestinians totaled more than NOK 1.7 billion.

Norway’s unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state will make it extremely difficult to gain the trust of Israel or other countries. It may prevent Norway from playing any role in the Middle East at all. In the short term, it will be more difficult for Norway to raise funds among the AHLC countries and other parties. Nor is it likely to play any role in a reconstruction of Gaza. This would be a significant blow to Norway’s diplomatic standing in regard to aid mechanisms.

Finally, relations between Israel and Norway will reach a new low despite their mutual contributions in the fields of scientific and technological research and development. This diplomatic strain coincides with Norway facing new threats within its borders, mainly in the Arctic region and the waters bordering Russia.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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