Norway opposes sanctions against Israel, former PM says

Netanyahu is sincere about a two-state solution — and strong enough to reach a peace agreement despite internal opposition, according to Kjell Magne Bondevik

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Kjell Magne Bondevik (photo credit: CC BY, Mikael Risedal/, Wikimedia Commons)
Kjell Magne Bondevik (photo credit: CC BY, Mikael Risedal/, Wikimedia Commons)

Norway is unlikely to boycott or sanction Israel or even implement a labeling regime for settlement products, the country’s former prime minister said Wednesday. This although Oslo is reputed to be among the most anti-Israel governments in Europe.

“Some ministers have spoken out in favor [of sanctions] but the government’s policy is not sanctions and boycott. So I don’t think that will be Norwegian policy,” Kjell Magne Bondevik told The Times of Israel.

Bondevik, Norway’s prime minister from 1997 to 2000 and from 2001 to 2005, is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who he believes is sincere about peace with the Palestinians — on Thursday. The two leaders know each from Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

In 2012, the European Union agreed in principle to label Israeli goods originating beyond the Green Line. In April, foreign ministers of 13 EU countries — Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Malta — signed a letter reaffirming their support for labeling products originating in Israeli settlements. This month, Germany — considered one of Israel’s strongest allies on the continent — also expressed support for the introduction of a labeling scheme.

EU diplomats have repeatedly stated that the labeling issue is meant to improve consumer protection, but Jerusalem understands it as punishment for a perceived obstinacy in the peace process.

In addition to the labeling issue, the EU and a few European countries have subtly threatened Israel with further sanctions if it continues to build beyond the Green Line, especially in the controversial E1 area connecting Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim. About six months ago, the EU foreign ministers said they will “closely monitor the situation [of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] and its broader implications, and act accordingly.”

Bondevik said he believes that Oslo — which is not a member of the EU — will not join the European chorus and threaten punitive measures to force Israel to move in the peace process.

“I don’t think that any sort of sanctions and boycotts will help. I prefer the use of political means and that window of opportunity that is open now with the engagement from the US and the Arab League,” he said, referring to efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

A “combination” of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy plus the fact that the Arab League recently reissued its 11-year-old peace proposal and for the first time mentioned the possibility of mutually agreed land swaps “could be helpful, because a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians also requires support from the Arab countries,” he said on the sideline of the President’s Conference in Jerusalem.

‘I heard Bibi said yesterday that peace requires a strong Israel. I do agree with him on that. Israel is strong for the time being, Bibi is a strong prime minister’

Bondevik, who is also the founder and president of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, acknowledged that Netanyahu used to staunchly oppose a two-state solution. However, he said, Netanyahu is sincere today when he professes to agree, in principle, to the creation of Palestinian state, the former prime minister said.

“I do think he means it,” Bondevik added. “Because he is not the first prime minister who has changed. Ariel Sharon changed. And I knew him very well, he was the very first sitting Israeli prime minister ever recognizing the right for the Palestinians to have their independent state.”

Netanyahu “has changed and I take it seriously, as other former prime ministers changed,” Bondevik, 65, continued. “Maybe when they become prime minister they really see the reality [with different] eyes and that it is in the long-term security interest of Israel to have peace with their closest neighbors.”

Bondevik said he agreed with Netanyahu’s statement Tuesday night that peace requires a strong Israel.

“Israel is strong for the time being, Bibi is a strong prime minister,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Bondevik, a member of the centrist Christian Democratic Party, said he is aware that some senior members of Israel’s current government are staunchly opposed to a two-state solution. Yet if the chance for a peace agreement came up, Netanyahu would be able to push it through, he assessed. “It’s up to the prime minister. If Bibi makes a decision to go for a negotiated agreement — I think he’s that strong that Likud will follow him, and then they have the majority.”

Pro-Israel groups often accuse Norway of one being unfairly biased toward the Palestinians. “The degree of anti-Israelism in Norway today on the state level, in the media, in the trade unions and at the universities, colleges and schools is unprecedented in modern Norwegian history,” a prominent Norwegian historian and self-described “social pundit,” Hanne Nabintu Herland, said last year at a lecture in Jerusalem. “The powerful individuals that have pushed for these negative and biased attitudes in Norway are today responsible for creating a politically-correct hatred towards Israel.”

At the time, Norway’s deputy head of mission in Tel Aviv, Vebjørn Dysvik, rejected these claims yet admitted ordinary Norwegians have a mainly negative view of Israel. Initially, Oslo was a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, he said. But in the 1970s and 1980s, things changed: Israel captured and occupied the West Bank and, in 1978, invaded south Lebanon. “The occupation of the Palestinians is the defining factor in the relationship between Norway and Israel,” Dysvik said.

On Wednesday, Bondevik said Oslo has no preference in the Middle East conflict. “The official Norwegian view still is balanced — we see both sides,” he said. “I have always looked upon myself as a friend of Israel, but on the other hand you can also be friends with the Palestinians.”

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