Norway Offers Old Ties, Trust In Mideast Crisis

If President Clinton fails to fix the broken peace between Israel and the Palestinians, who can?

The people who secretly brokered the 1993 deal known as the Oslo accords think they can. Leaders in Norway, a country with 4 million people and a propensity for peacemaking, say they are again probing opportunities to smooth the ruffled feathers of both sides.

As Mr. Clinton meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today in Washington, the shepherds of the Oslo agreement that lurched the Mideast toward peace say their role as neutral mediators is needed again to restore trust.

"We will not be on the front pages of newspapers," says Norwegian Foreign Ministry official Geir Pedersen, "[but] we have kept quite an active hand." The peace process is at a crossroads, adds Mr. Pedersen, one of the original Oslo negotiators.

"There are reasons to be concerned," says Mona Juul, Middle East coordinator for Norway's Foreign Ministry. "This crisis comes at a time when the level of trust is at its lowest point."

But there are differences between now and 1993, when adversaries with no direct contact approached a neutral mediator with modest expectations. Today, with the situation in crisis, the key third party, the US, must balance its close alliance with Israel with the evenhandedness required to ensure peace.

Norwegian officials have held their breath as they've watched Palestinians and Israelis clash following Israel's decision to build a housing project in East Jerusalem.

In such violence, they see backsliding from the progress made in 1993. Then, some land was ceded by Israel, the Palestinians agreed to renounce terror and end calls for Israel's destruction - and it was agreed that key issues such as final borders of the Palestinian area, settlements, and the status of Jerusalem were to be resolved as part of a five-year process. Oslo would like not to see all of that unravel.

As Clinton prepares to meet with Mr. Netanyahu in an emergency summit, Norwegian officials are playing a quiet, behind-the-scenes role.

Norway's foreign minister, Bjorn Tore Godals, was in Washington on Friday meeting with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, discussing the Mideast peace process as well as NATO.

And while experts advise against looking for any Norwegian deals like the 1993 agreements, they don't underestimate the ties forged by this Nordic country.

In September, Norway brokered the first meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a newly elected Netanyahu, who had never met with him before.

"From a governmental and nongovernmental standpoint they obviously feel a great deal of kinship in this process and, in a sense, have adopted it as their own," says Geoffrey Aronson, a scholar with the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

So how is it that Norway wields so much weight in international negotiating circles, not only in the Middle East, but in the recent agreements that ended Guatemala's 35-year-old civil war?

It doesn't hurt that this oil-rich nation is economically in a position to dish out aid to other countries. In recent years, for example, Norway has given generously to the former Yugoslavia and African countries like Sudan and Kenya.

Norway has also exploited its position of being on the outskirts of Europe, and is perceived by other countries as not posing a threat nor having vested interests in negotiations other than to act as a mediator.

But to understand the larger picture of Norway's ties to the Middle East, you have to look back several decades.

Norway and Israel were "two small countries with many ideas and visions in common," says Hilde Waage, a scholar with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, who has spent years studying the two countries' relationship.

Labor Party leaders from both countries were in concentration camps together during World War II. Haakan Lie, who was Norway's Labor Party leader from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, was a close personal friend of Golda Meir, later Israel's foreign minister and prime minister. Mr. Lie paved the way for Norway helping Israel with its nuclear program. And in 1949, when the biggest plane crash in Norway's history killed 27 Jewish children, Lie rustled up about $100,000 so Norway could build its own 75-house kibbutz in Israel.

"He personally went to the [top] leaders in Israel," says Ms. Waage. "This explains how Israel and Norway came to have a deep trust in each other."

Later, in the 1970s, Norwegian citizens became increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians as a younger generation was raised on a steady diet of radio and television reports describing the Palestinian position.

While some say Norway's influence has crested in the region because Netanyahu is a conservative and critical of the accords, officials here say they'll continue to extend offers to negotiate.

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