In Oslo, home of the 93 accords, collective frustration pervades

OSLO, Norway — In a Scandinavian nation with fewer than 2,000 Jews, one might expect to find only casual interest in the collapse of the Middle East peace process.

But that's certainly not the case in the country that spawned a historic agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993.

"Because it was the Oslo accords, people here do feel very personally engaged," Marian Heiberg said Wednesday.

A Middle East sociologist and the wife of a former foreign affairs minister, she helped spark the "back channel" talks between Israelis and Palestinians that began in January 1993. After rounds and rounds of secret meetings at a government guesthouse in Norway, a deal was announced seven months later in Oslo and subsequently signed in Washington.

"When the negotiations became known, there was a collective Norwegian pride," she added.

Now, however, there is a collective disappointment.

"For me, it's basically seven lost years," said Svein Sevje, who spent 1994 to 1998 in Israel as a diplomat, including three at a new Norway office in Gaza. "For all Norwegians, I think we feel generally rotten that it seems to be coming apart."

Sevje, now a special adviser on the Middle East in Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he'd love his celebrated peace-promoting country to work as an intermediary yet again, but there's only one problem.

"Hardly anyone is talking at all," he said.

"I'm sure if there was any chance of operating another back channel, Oslo would love to do so," Heiberg said. "But the peace process is brain dead."

Heiberg and her late husband, Johan Jørgen Holst, were instrumental in launching the Oslo process in the early 1990s. She was part of a research team from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs charged with doing a massive study on Palestinian living conditions.

He was Norway's minister of defense at the time, becoming foreign affairs minister two months into the talks. But it was mainly the contacts she had established among both Israelis and Palestinians that helped get the negotiating ball rolling. She had formed personal ties with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Yossi Beilin, Israel's minister of justice and former deputy foreign minister, among many other important people.

"I spent an awful lot of time building up political space on both sides of the fence, and expanding it and nurturing it," she said.

The first meeting in Oslo in early 1993 involved only one man from each side. Eventually, three or four Palestinians and three Israelis were basically living together at a guesthouse in an Oslo suburb, building the level of trust and friendship that allowed a deal to be worked out. A few meetings also occurred in a downtown hotel once the bigwigs were brought in.

Heiberg said "less than two dozen people worldwide" knew the talks were going on.

Even the Israeli Embassy in Norway knew nothing, said current Ambassador Amos Nadai, "which actually became very, very embarrassing."

Nadai, Israel's ambassador to Norway since August 1997, has been grinding his teeth a lot since the skirmishes began in his homeland. Norwegians, who generally root for the underdog, began switching their allegiances to the Palestinians in 1967 and even more so in 1973, said Per Egil Hegge, an editor at Afterposten, Norway's most respected and second-most widely read newspaper.

"It [used to be] easier to say a critical word about Israel in Manhattan than it was in Oslo," he said. But now, he added, "there is much sympathy for the Palestinians."

Local newspapers and national television coverage has reflected that, said Nadai.

"More space is given to the views of Palestinians," Hegge said. The press is criticizing Israel for not finding less lethal responses to Palestinian violence, and one headline in recent weeks translated roughly to "An obituary for the peace process." This has helped weigh public sentiment in favor of the Palestinians.

While Nadai lamented the lack of public support, he said he believes the Norwegian government is still on Israel's side.

"I believe that they know very well that the problems were initiated by Yasser Arafat in order to deflect the attention of the world from his inability to come to a decision" on the final-status offer from Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Nadai said. "Of course, this is my feeling, because they will not say so."

Norway joined most other European nations in abstaining in the U.N. General Assembly vote last week condemning Israel for the use of "excessive force." The non-binding resolution was passed on Friday with 92 votes in favor, six "no" votes, 46 abstentions and some 30 countries not voting.

Heiberg said Arafat, whom she knows personally, is acting largely out of weakness, in that "he thinks himself much less popular than he actually is." This low self-esteem, she suggested, could be driving the current crisis, as Arafat's ego was bruised by President Clinton after the failed Camp David talks in July. When Arafat returned a "conquering hero" for standing up to the United States and not giving in to Israel, he became enamored with staying atop that wave and riding it.

"This is a great way for him to be popular," she said.

However, Heiberg didn't blame the unraveling of the peace process on Arafat. She said the three years after the Oslo accords were "wasted" by Benjamin Netanyahu, "who described the Oslo process as a strategic threat to Israel."

She also said too much time was wasted on "very trivial and irrelevant" issues, such as the wording on Palestinian travel documents and lines on maps. She also criticized Israel for not curtailing its settlement activity, a bargaining point that was "explicitly understood here in Oslo but not written down."

Nadai, who gets stacks of daily briefings, said: "Our people in Jerusalem believe this will take a year or so — at least a year. People think that it is really the determination of Arafat to show that Israel is spilling a river of blood. This has only been a trickle so far. He wants to show the world that Israel is shooting and killing and spilling rivers of blood. And he knows how to arrange it."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.