Former Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg speaks to MEMO

Thorvald Stoltenberg

Former Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg speaks to MEMO's Amelia Smith about the Oslo process: "At the moment there is no sign of a solution."

Though I can't see Thorvald Stoltenberg - our interview takes place over the telephone - his voice radiates composure. After all, he helped negotiate a peace plan for the Balkans and was one of the chief architects of the Oslo Accords, the beginning of a peace process for Israel and Palestine after decades of conflict.

It was 20 years ago last week that the Oslo Accords were sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands, overlooked by the then U.S. President Bill Clinton. It was the culmination of secret negotiations between the two sides, facilitated by Norway.

Two decades on, the Accords have still not achieved the peace they set out to establish. "I feel like any normal person, that's a sad thing" says Stoltenberg. "And it's very serious for all of us. At the moment there is no sign of a solution. I think hope is as important as life itself. Without hope we will never reach our goals."

Part of a recent documentary on Al Jazeera suggests Norway was chosen to help negotiate a settlement because it was the most pro-Israeli country in the west. "I've not heard this before you mention it to me" says Stoltenberg when I ask him if it's true. "I don't think Norway was chosen in this instance. The first group that came to me was a group of Palestinians to ask that we took some initiative vis-a-vis the Israeli Labour Party. And we did."

Norway's most important contribution to the process, believes Stoltenberg, is that they kept the negotiations secret. "If it hadn't been secret, it would have destroyed the whole process very quickly."

In May 1993 Stoltenberg left the process to mediate on the Balkans. "There everything was public" he points out as a comparison. "We negotiated with the world." As soon as one of the parties became dissatisfied with the situation they made their grievances well known publicly, creating complications within the groups negotiating that needed weeks to repair.

The most important person, continues Stoltenberg, was Rabin who changed his attitude from being a hawk to seeing the possibility in the Oslo process. "Rabin was a hawk. I knew him from when he was a Lieutenant, and he was a hawk; he looked like a hawk and behaved like a hawk. And then he suddenly saw the possibility in the Oslo process and I think the reason why he was murdered was that those against this process felt that he was a dangerous man."

Stoltenberg seems sure that Rabin genuinely wanted peace at that time. "He was preoccupied with achieving an agreement of principles and I have no reason to doubt that he wanted to go further."

Since Clinton's public appearance in between Rabin and Arafat, the US have tried a number of times to kick start negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yet given the special relationship between the US and Israel, many question how fair it is on Palestine that America should be the broker, the third country in the triangle.

But Stoltenberg believes that only the US can do it. "I think we are dependent on the United States" he says. "That's an honour to the United States, but it's also a burden to the United States. Without the involvement of the United States it's hard to achieve any agreement with the Middle East."

This is largely to do with their power politically and economically he explains. Whilst there may be a more symmetrical country to play this role, one that has an equal relationship with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, they cannot match US might. "I mediated on behalf of the United Nations. Lord Owen did on behalf of the EU. But eventually it was necessary for the United States to come in and achieve an agreement and that's because of the power and strength of the United States" he says.

Perhaps a focus on an Arab power as broker might inject some urgency into the process, I suggest. America, after all, has its own domestic issues to solve and the conflict between Israel and Palestine is not their priority. "In the future, yes, I hope so" he says. But it really is a matter of urgency and this Arab power doesn't exist yet. "I hope that there will be a solution now as the United States are much more involved than before. Generally speaking I'm an optimist on world affairs, but I don't think they have much time when it comes to the Middle East."

One condition in the Oslo process, which critics portray as a huge mistake, stipulated that only the areas where there was a possibility of achieving an agreement were to be focussed on; the hardest matters, such as the settlements, would be left for future negotiations with the hope that over time the parties would develop confidence in one another.

"Again my comparison will be with the Balkans" says Stoltenberg when I ask him how he viewed this condition at the time. "[For] the Balkans we negotiated absolutely every crossroad. Every bit. And we come into a vicious circle. Every time we failed to achieve an agreement the reactions were negative and it was even more difficult to find a new agreement or for instance another area of the Balkans. So a hope that Oslo would lead to a process of achieving peace was much more realistic than the model we followed on the Balkans."

Twenty years on, attitudes among the general public in Norway towards the conflict is not a question of taking sides, believes Stoltenberg. "But Norwegian public opinion reacts strongly when they feel that someone is acting against international law and agreements. After all, the base of a state is on international law and agreements, and there is a strong reaction against this continued building up of areas where the Israelis live."

Some who analyse the Oslo Accords say that more time should be spent looking forward and figuring out new ways to bring about peace. Some say we have to look back to look forward. "I don't understand why both things aren't possible and important, both to look back, but to work ahead to work for the future. It would be madness to work for the future without having some experience from what happened" says Stoltenberg.

And is peace possible in the near future? "Let me put the answer in two stages" he replies. "One, I definitely think it's possible. But two, in the near future, I dare not say. Because I'm old enough to have said many times that now I believe there will be peace in the near future. But the near future has passed many times without. So the timing I would not dare to guess."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor