Interview'Hamas wants to destroy Israel, and a one-state solution'

Norway’s FM: Palestine recognition is an ‘anti-Hamas’ step, pushes two-state vision

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Espen Barth Eide acknowledges move won’t create a state; says it is partly a reaction to Netanyahu policies, but will also weaken Hamas and Iran

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

On Wednesday, the leaders of Norway, Ireland and Spain announced that their countries would recognize a Palestinian state within days.

Not surprisingly, Israeli leaders reacted furiously, calling the move a prize for terrorism in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught. Foreign Minister Israel Katz summoned the envoys of the three countries in Israel for “severe reprimands,” and showed them footage of the kidnapping of five female Israeli soldiers.

Unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state by other countries is rejected not only by the current government, but also by past Israeli governments across the political spectrum, who believe that a Palestinian state should only come about through direct negotiations between the two sides.

By contrast, a senior Hamas official lauded the move, crediting the “brave resistance” of the Palestinian people for spurring the recognition.

Hours after Norway’s announcement, The Times of Israel spoke by phone with Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, a former defense minister who is firmly behind Oslo’s move.

Throughout the war in Gaza, Eide has been critical of Israel’s conduct. While affirming Israel’s right to self-defense against the Hamas terror group, Norway voted in favor of the October 27 United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza — alongside the release of Hamas-held hostages — before Israel’s ground offensive even began.

Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store announces his country will recognize a Palestinian state during a news conference in Oslo, Norway, May 22, 2024. (Erik Flaaris Johansen/NTB Scanpix via AP)

Eide said that Israel was “burning sympathy” with its strikes in Gaza, and last month criticized Western countries for not using the same language around the war in Gaza that they use to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine.

Norway’s top diplomat told The Times of Israel that his country’s decision to recognize a Palestinian state comes in reaction to the policies and statements of the current Benjamin Netanyahu government, and that he believes proactive measures must be taken to bring about the two-state solution.

He argued that the move would strengthen moderates and sideline Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, and the rest of the Iran-backed axis.

Eide also asserted that Israel, still scarred by October 7, might need help thinking about the bigger picture, which Norway is trying to do.

Following is a transcript of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Are the principles of the Oslo process dead, given that they envisioned two states coming about through negotiations and not unilateral declarations?

Espen Barth Eide: No, I will not say that they’re dead.

But I think that we have to update to reality, which is that the current government in Israel has very clearly said in words and in deeds that they are not interested in a negotiated settlement now. And developments over the last years — not only the war in Gaza, but also developments in the West Bank — have made that approach increasingly difficult.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a vote on the state budget at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

So we are still committed to the principle of a two-state solution on the basis of 1967 borders, with room for land swaps, and the need to settle the outstanding issues.

But we do believe that we need to better anchor this in a broad, comprehensive regional setting, which is why we have taken a keen interest in this Arab Peace Initiative, which involves the promise of an irreversible path towards Palestinian statehood in combination with recognition or normalization of relations with other Arab states, security guarantees for Israel, demobilization of Hamas and strengthening of the Palestinian Authority. So all of this is a package.

And I think the problem so far has been that just sitting idly by — waiting for the moment when the sides would be on their own terms, just ready to negotiate the outstanding issues — simply didn’t work for more than 30 years.

(L-R) Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on September 13, 1993. (Wikipedia)

So it’s an update. It’s not the end of the Oslo vision. And at the end of the day, we still need negotiations, but we need a strong signal that lifts the moderate forces, including those in the Palestine Liberation Organization and those running the PA, in order also to weaken the appeal of the more extremist groups.

How exactly does this get Palestinians to the negotiating table? It seems that you’ve taken away any incentive that Israel could give them for coming, which makes a deal harder.

The real reward is the actual establishment of a Palestinian state and a peace agreement with Israel. This is still something Israel can give and nobody else can give them that.

But the international community, both with the vote in the UN on May 10 and this growing trend towards increasing European recognition — I mean, we are three today, but we believe more will come — it’s rather a signal that we still believe in this, that we do not believe in a one-state solution, neither one as proposed by the far-right in Israel, nor the one proposed by Hamas.

Illustrative; Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photo prior to their talks in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November 23, 2021. (Yevgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

We want the two-state solution based on two governments able to recognize and work with each other. And the embryo of this is, of course, the PA. And to this day, there is still some cooperation between Israel and the PA, including on security. And that is the state that we want to continue to build.

We are perfectly aware that other countries just recognizing it does not create the state in itself. But it’s a strong signal as part of this bigger puzzle, which is a comprehensive regional peace plan.

You paint this as a reaction to policies of the Netanyahu government. But President [Isaac] Herzog said in Davos that no Israeli in his right mind is thinking about a Palestinian state right now. [Opposition Leader Yair] Lapid doesn’t support a Palestinian state right now. [War cabinet minister Benny] Gantz doesn’t. I don’t know anyone on the Zionist political spectrum who is pushing for a Palestinian state right now. It seems like you’re going against the wishes of the Israeli public writ large, and not against this government.

Well, there was a vision back in the time of [Shimon] Peres and [Yitzhak] Rabin, of course, which then was upheld by several successive Israeli governments later.

I am fully aware of the situation right now, and I have to say that I have a lot of empathy for the psychological mood in Israel now after the horrible terrorist events on October 7. The most important thing now is to get the hostages out, which we totally support, by the way.

A still from footage showing the capture and abduction of Liri Albag, Karina Ariev, Agam Berger, Daniela Gilboa and Naama Levy at the Nahal Oz base on October 7, 2023. (The Hostages Families Forum)

But I also think, as [some Israelis] have been saying, that maybe somebody has to help [them] think right now because [they] are so captured by the moment.

And I think that we agree. We need the ceasefire. We need the end of Hamas attacks on Israel. We need the end of bombing of Gaza. We need to get out of that.

We also agree, I think, that we need to do something with the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza after that.

But what we really have been reminded of is that there is no alternative to a political solution. And somebody needs to think of that.

Troops of the Givati Brigade operate in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

What we’re doing now with other European countries and the Arab countries is to suggest that there is an alternative to this endless cycle of violence, and that because the endless cycle of violence ends up strengthening the more extreme forces, you see in the radicalization or the move to the right in Israel and to less believe in this, as you correctly say. But you also see the strengthening of Hezbollah, Hamas and Houthis and other Iranian agents.

And we work with people who want to limit the influence of Iran in the region, which is exactly also what the Netanyahu government wants.

But I think it’s better to do that with the Palestinians, the moderate Palestinians and the Arabs, than against them.

You say this will weaken Hamas, but Hamas is praising this decision and the left-wing in Israel is against it. How does this weaken Hamas if Hamas seems very happy about it? 

This has also been very well received by the PA, by Fatah, by, I think, almost all Palestinians. And our support is explicitly to those moderate forces.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Qatar-based leader of Hamas, delivers a televised speech on May 15, 2024. (Twitter screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

And because it’s popular, I just assume that Hamas is trying to capture some of the support. But this [statehood recognition] is definitely not support [for Hamas] because there’s nothing in this to support anything that Hamas wants, because Hamas wants to destroy Israel and they want the opposite one-state solution of some of the Israeli far right.

So we are trying to reintroduce a real idea of a two-state solution that requires an Israel that can live in peace, but also a Palestinian state. And this has always been our commitment. And at this time, we think this is the right thing to do.

So right now, it’s definitely an anti-Hamas measure.

Hamas might disagree. Your policy on Palestinian recognition is aligned with Russia, is aligned with Iran. It is not aligned with the US, with Canada, France or Germany or Israel. How do you respond to your foreign policy on this issue being aligned with some of your most bitter rivals?

I disagree with that. It’s correct that the US and Canada and Germany have not recognized today and will not do it in the coming weeks either.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide speak to the media prior to their meeting on the sidelines of the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on November 28, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP)

But there are serious, deep agreements among all the Western countries, who mention that the outcome has to be a two-state solution. [US Secretary of State] Blinken repeated this a few days ago in Jerusalem. France is very much there. The UK has actually started to say that maybe we also will recognize, not at the end, but within the process.

So I actually sense that all Western governments — with the exception of Israel, I recognize — are on the path towards a two-state solution.

But we have different views. I mean, some already recognized, ten or so EU countries have done this before. More are coming now.

But this is tactical. The strategic mission is a two-state solution for all of us.

You know, many of us felt that the Oslo process was running out of steam and not much was happening, and maybe a two-state solution would never emerge.

“This is tactical. The strategic mission is a two-state solution for all of us.”

Actually, I think that sense now in G20 and in the UN and in Western circles and the EU and so on, is that it’s actually more necessary than ever before.

Do you support the goal of Israel eliminating Hamas militarily? Because I did not hear you say that when you were outlining what you do support.

I would very much like to see Hamas disappear, definitely. Particularly as a military organization. We have from the very outset said that Israel has obviously a right to defend itself, but there are two things to say about that.

Palestinians look at the rubble of a bombed out building in Rafah in southern Gaza on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

First, the self-defense has also to take place within the remit of international law and international humanitarian law, which binds all countries and also other armed actors. And many of us have been critical of some of the military choices, not the war itself, but some of the choices in the war.

And the second thing, and I also say that as a former defense minister, that one of the key principles of military theory is that you always need a political solution. The use of the military is always to [serve] a political end. And even your own defense minister has been questioning whether there is clarity on what that political end is. So we’re worried about that. But to defend yourself against terror, by all means, we support that.

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (center), announces he is seeking arrest warrants from the court’s judges for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, along with Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh, May 20, 2024. (ICC)

Do you think that the International Criminal Court is justified in seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant?

Well, I actually see the ICC as an independent court. And just as we treat our own courts, we respect the decisions of the court, but we do not have opinions [on] what the court does.

What we have said is that we support the existence and the work of the ICC. We are one of the 124 signatories to the Rome Statute, but we respect the court’s independence. So we do not have a view on the individual decisions, but we will respect them when decisions are made, as we’ve always done since we set it up.

I do not think that one can compare Netanyahu to the Hamas leaders.

And it’s interesting to note that every EU member, all NATO members, apart from the US and Turkey, all other US allies in Asia and Oceania and so on, are all members of ICC. So the Western norm is to be in full support of ICC, and we belong to that Western norm. Unfortunately, Israel and the US are on the side of Iran, Syria, China and Russia, who have not signed the ICC.

But other EU states have come out against this, and the comparison, this parallel between Netanyahu and [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar. 

Yeah, that’s something else. I do not think that one can compare Netanyahu to the Hamas leaders; I agree that that cannot be compared. But I do not agree that they were compared, because [the ICC prosecutors are] building individual cases against the five individuals, and they’re not, they’re not seen as the same if you read the statements from ICC.

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