Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Norway's involvement in the peace process in the Middle East

Norway’s involvement in the peace process in the Middle East

The breakthrough in the peace process was made in Oslo in August 1993, when the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DoP), also referred to as the Oslo Peace Accord, was initialled during a secret ceremony at the Norwegian Government Guest House. This took place during an official visit to Norway by Israel’s foreign minister Shimon Peres, a visit that was ostensibly about quite different matters. The Accord was signed by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Abu Ala, and his Israeli counterpart, Uri Savir, and witnessed by the Norwegian foreign minister, Johan Jørgen Holst.

However, the basis for Norway’s involvement was laid much earlier. Ever since the founding of the state of Israel, Norwegian politicians, particularly from the labour movement and from Christian circles, have had close, friendly relations with Israeli colleagues. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions has also cooperated closely with the Israeli trade union movement, Histadrut. There has always been considerable interest in and support for Israel among the Norwegian public. During the 1970s, there was also growing interest in the Palestinian cause, and a number of solidarity groups were formed. Foreign Minister Knut Frydenlund took up the difficult situation of the Palestinians at an early stage. Together with other Labour Party politicians, he met unofficially with the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, in Tunis in December 1982. The PLO was later allowed to open an information centre in Oslo. Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg took a further step in the efforts to create a balanced policy when he met Yasser Arafat for official talks in January 1989. These initiatives signalled Norway’s understanding of fundamental Palestinian demands at a time when most western countries were still keeping a careful distance from the PLO. It is clear that the Palestinian leaders were appreciative of this early Norwegian recognition.

Historical background

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the most complex and deadlocked clashes of interest in the world today. The many reasons why it has been so difficult to achieve peace are to be found not only in the current political situation, but also in the recent and more distant past. Nonetheless, the core of the conflict consists of two ethnic groups with competing claims to the same geographically limited area. Both groups have deep roots in the area, and both groups can present weighty historical and religious arguments in support of their claims.

Following the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War, there was a growth in Jewish migration to Palestine, which had been under the British Mandate since 1922. (The Mandate was set up in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.) The immigrants sought support from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, called after the British foreign secretary of the day, who promised British support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Britain attempted without success to hold the balance between the Arabs and the Jews, and, in 1947, finally referred the Palestine question to the newly founded United Nations.

On 29 November 1947, the General Assembly adopted a resolution on partition involving the establishment of a Jewish and a Palestinian state. This resolution was opposed by Arab leaders. The Zionists’ proclamation of the state of Israel in May 1948 met with incredulity and anger throughout the Arab world. The Arab League immediately mounted a military offensive, but the outcome left Israel in a stronger position. Later the same year, Israel annexed the Negev Desert, thereby splitting the area inhabited by the Palestinians in two. In 1956, Israel obtained access to the Red Sea and, through the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 (the Six-day War), gained control over the West Bank including Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. These wars resulted in streams of refugees out of Israel and the occupied territories and enormous human suffering, which has strengthened the antagonism between the Arab world and Israel. There are now an estimated two million Palestinian refugees in the countries bordering on Israel, or 3.4 million if Gaza and the West Bank are included.

The Palestinian resistance struggle has been led by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was formed at an Arab summit meeting in Cairo in 1964. Since the beginning the PLO has consisted of several factions. The largest and most important of these is al-Fatah, which is led by Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian National Council (PNC) is the PLO’s supreme body, while its day-to-day activities are managed by the executive committee. The PLO’s activities are governed by a charter, which was adopted in 1968. Since 1968, the PLO’s charter has included references to the destruction of Israel. For this reason, it constituted a obstacle to the peace process. The charter was amended at the historical peace conference in Gaza on Monday 14 December 1998. At this meeting, which was attended by President Clinton, the PNC agreed to remove all references to the destruction of Israel from the charter.

The Gulf War and the weakened global role of the Soviet Union gave rise to a new political situation in the Middle East. In the autumn of 1991, in response to pressure from the USA and active efforts by US Secretary of State James Baker, a peace conference on the Middle East was held in Madrid. Another important precondition for the start of peace talks was the Palestinian intifada (Arabic for “uprising”), which had begun in Gaza and the West Bank in December 1987. The intifada was a popular uprising against the Israeli occupying power. Daily clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, strikes, closure of the border and other unrest all contributed to the enormous international attention that the conflict aroused. At the beginning of the 1990s this unrest had reached sizeable proportions.

The Madrid conference did not result in any changes in the parties’ positions, and there was little enthusiasm for the negotiation process that had been begun. For periods of time, some of the parties even boycotted the talks. Nonetheless, the conference was to prove significant. It established a framework for negotiations, and it was clear that the international community expected results. The Madrid conference established two parallel tracks: bilateral negotiations between Israel and its neighbours (the “bilateral track”) and negotiations between several of the countries involved both within and outside the Middle East (the “multilateral track”).

However, the official peace process proved to have its weaknesses. Firstly, the bilateral negotiations suffered from the fact that direct contact between the PLO and Israel was still impossible. The PLO’s representatives had to take part as members of Jordan’s delegation. Secondly, the negotiations in Washington were being held more or less in public. This meant that they tended to end in open controversy. With the media present and the Israeli and Palestinian public within earshot, it proved impossible to have a genuinely constructive dialogue.

The Oslo channel

This is the background for the establishment of the secret Oslo channel. Leading Israelis and Palestinians were dissatisfied with the lack of progress in Washington and were looking for other forms of contact. At the same time, Jan Egeland and Mona Juul of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Terje Rød-Larsen (then Director of the Institute for Applied Social Science (FAFO)), had noted the need for confidential contact between the parties.

Towards the end of 1992, after confidential talks with the Israeli deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and visits to the PLO in Tunis, Terje Rød-Larsen suggested the organization of a secret channel under the auspices of FAFO in Oslo. Foreign Minister Stoltenberg and State Secretary Egeland gave this suggestion their full support. There were a number of advantages in using a research institute such as FAFO. The talks could more easily be kept out of the public gaze, and could even be disguised as academic activity. The fact that FAFO was already involved in the Middle East through a survey of living conditions it was making called FALCOT, also provided a degree of cover. This project made it natural to have contact with both Israelis and Palestinians without arousing suspicion.

The Palestinian and Israeli negotiators agreed on a pragmatic approach: previous history, i.e. long-standing grievances, had to be ignored. If the parties began to discuss the historical causes of the conflict, it would be impossible to make any progress. Another condition was the decision to concentrate on areas where the was a real possibility of reaching agreement, and to leave the most difficult matters for future negotiations. It was hoped that in the meantime the parties would develop the necessary confidence in each other. The Norwegian organizers stressed that their role was to make arrangements for the parties rather than to arbitrate. An informal style was encouraged, with an emphasis on the social side and on giving the negotiators opportunities to develop personal relationships with each other.

The negotiations began in January 1993. In the initial phase, the negotiators were the Israeli academics Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak and the Palestinians Abu Ala and Hassan Asfour. When the first unofficial draft agreement had been presented to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in May 1993, the meetings were upgraded to official negotiations, with Uri Savir and Joel Singer as new participants on the Israeli side. In April, the Norwegian foreign minister Johan Jørgen Holst was informed about the secret channel. He participated very actively in the final phase of the negotiations, and came to play a major role as intermediary for the reciprocal recognition between Israel and the PLO. This was essential before the Oslo Peace Accord could be drawn up.

The Accord that was to astound the world at the end of August 1993 laid down the principles for a gradual establishment of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, on the basis of Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho. Some weeks after the dramatic developments in Oslo, the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DoP) was solemnly signed on the White House lawn in the presence of leaders from all corners of the world. The Accord was sealed by the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Norwegian involvement in the peace process since 1993

Since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord, Norway has received much praise from the parties. However, it is important to stress that Norway’s role was primarily that of a facilitator in the process leading up to the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993. The real honour for reaching an agreement is due to the courageous leaders of the two parties. This will continue to apply in the future. Norway can never force the parties to reach a settlement. It is only when there is a will to talk and negotiate that we can establish favourable conditions, create meeting places, function as an intermediary. However, even though it is the parties who are responsible for following up the agreements that are concluded, this does not make Norway’s role any less important. Norway frequently receives requests to act as a midwife, to coordinate assistance, observers or meetings.

Norway’s involvement in the region therefore takes many different forms.

Since October 1993, Norway has led the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC). In this committee, the major donor countries (the USA, the EU, Japan, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, the Palestinian authorities, Israel, and Norway) meet to coordinate and ensure efficient assistance to the Palestinian areas. Norway’s role is to encourage the donor countries to earmark and pay out the funds needed for selected development projects. The Norwegian foreign minister chairs the AHLC, which has its secretariat at the World Bank.

In 1998 Norway alone donated over NOK 400 million in assistance to the Palestinian people, of which one-quarter was given to the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Immediately after the breakthrough in the peace talks, Norway granted NOK 1 billion to the Palestinians over the five-year period from 1994 to 1998. By the end of 1998, a total of NOK 1.9 billion had been disbursed. In December 1998, Norway granted assistance to the Palestinian areas for a further five years, from 1999 to 2003. During this five-year period, Norway has undertaken to provide NOK 1.3 billion in assistance. In addition to this, support will be provided to UNRWA and to Palestinian refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

Norway also leads the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). This force was set up after the massacre in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in February 1994, where 29 Palestinians were killed by a Jewish fanatic. The religious and political importance of Hebron for both Jews and Muslims necessitates very strict security measures. The observers’ main objective is to prevent conflict in a town with a conflict potential almost as great as that of Jerusalem, owing to the holy sites located there. The observer force has now been present almost continually since 1994 and seems to have functioned to the satisfaction of both parties. Norway leads the observer force, which includes approximately 120 observers from Turkey, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Norway is also responsible for coordination of People-to-People cooperation, a project for close contact between individual Israelis and Palestinians. The day-to-day work on this project is managed by the research institute FAFO, and the project has its own office in Jerusalem.

Norway has also taken a very active role in the multilateral track of the peace process, and is involved in the working group for refugees and the water group. In both of these groups, FAFO and CESAR (Centre for Environmental Studies and Resource Management at the University of Oslo) are important suppliers of data and other research material that will be useful to the parties in the final status negotiations.

New stages in the peace process – the difficult final status issues

According to the Oslo II agreement, a large number of difficult issues are to be resolved in what are termed the final status negotiations. The complexity of the challenges ahead may seem overwhelming, but solutions can only be arrived at by means of negotiation. In the following, we list some of the most difficult issues.


It is clear that Jerusalem will be a major problem in the negotiations. Under the UN plan for partition of 1947, East Jerusalem, which includes the old town, was intended to be placed under international administration. During the 1948 war, East Jerusalem and the whole of the West Bank fell under Jordanian control. The Jews who resided in the old town fled and their property was seized. From 1948 to 1967, East Jerusalem was exclusively Arab (Jordanian-Palestinian) territory, while West Jerusalem was primarily Jewish. During the 1967 war, East Jerusalem was captured by Israel and a large proportion of the Palestinian population fled. The city was annexed by Israel, and the former Jewish quarter was restored. East Jerusalem’s current status in international law is that of an occupied area. The fourth Geneva Convention of 1948 is fully applicable there, which entails that the occupying power has no right to move its own population into the area.

Although the Israeli authorities regard Jerusalem as the capital, few countries currently have their embassies in West Jerusalem. Norway will not recognize Jerusalem as the capital for any of the parties as long as the status of the city remains unresolved, and in November 1997 Norway voted in favour of a resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning the Israeli policy of settlement in the city. Norway’s most important contribution to resolving the Jerusalem issue is continued support to the peace process, so that the parties can establish the status of the city within the framework of the Oslo Peace Accords, in compliance with international law, and with the full recognition of the UN.

Final borders and Israeli settlements:

The establishment of final borders and the future of those Israeli settlements that remain inside the borders of the Palestinian state are very sensitive issues in the final status negotiations. The Palestinians maintain that the Palestinian state must include the whole of the West Bank and Gaza and that Israel and the Palestinian areas must be delimited according to the 1967 borders. The Israelis envisage a smaller Palestinian state.

The refugee situation:

Today, there are 3.4 million registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Approximately 38 per cent of these are living in 59 refugee camps administered by UNRWA. The status of these refugees is a major issue in the current negotiations. Israel is attempting to prevent all of the refugees from being given the right to return to the Palestinian areas, whereas the Palestinians are demanding that all the refugees should be given the right to return to the areas from which they originally fled. None of the peace accords so far concluded includes specific agreements concerning the refugees’ situation. These problems must therefore be solved in the final status negotiations.

The Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize has twice been awarded to politicians from the Middle East. The first time was when Egypt’s president Anwar Al-Sadat and Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin were awarded the prize in 1978 for their contributions to the Camp David process. The Nobel Committee awarded the prize in the expectation that it would inspire further efforts. This proved correct: the following year, Sadat and Begin signed a peace agreement between the two countries in Washington in the presence of the principal mainstay of the peace process, President Jimmy Carter. In December 1994 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat, Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israel’s foreign minister Shimon Peres for the breakthrough in the peace process. The peace prize has also been awarded to an American, Ralph Bunche (1950), who on behalf of the UN brought about an Arab-Israeli truce in 1949.

The most important peace agreements:

The Oslo Peace Accord / Declaration of Principles

(Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements)

Washington, 13 September 1993. Parties: Israel, PLO. Witnesses: USA, Russia

The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DoP), which is the full title of the Accord, was concluded in Oslo and later formally signed in Washington in autumn 1993. The DoP marked a turning point in the peace process that was tentatively begun by the Camp David agreement in 1978 and that was revived in Madrid in 1991. The DoP is not a peace agreement in the strict sense. It is an agreement that provides a framework for Israel and the PLO to work their way gradually forward to peace. The DoP describes the different stages along the way towards a permanent arrangement, and sets up a timetable for when goals are to be reached.

The Gaza-Jericho agreement (Cairo agreement)

Cairo, 4 May 1994

Parties: Israel, PLO. Witnesses: USA, Russia, Egypt

The Accord, with its associated annexes and correspondence, provides detailed regulations for Israeli regrouping within the Gaza Strip and the town of Jericho, security arrangements and borders, transfer of authority from the Israeli administration to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and economic relations. The five-year time frame for the peace negotiations started immediately after the implementation of Israeli regrouping in the Gaza Strip and Jericho area the same month.

The Accord also regulates the transfer of authority from the Israeli Civil Administration to the PA in areas such as education, public works, tourism, agriculture, finances, population registration and documentation, general planning and communications. An important area of authority that has not been transferred is foreign affairs, and the PA’s sphere of authority does not include Israeli nationals, settlements or military installations.

The Oslo Declaration

Oslo, 13 September 1994. Parties: PLO, Israel, Norway

This declaration confirmed the parties’ willingness to implement the Oslo Peace Accord and continue the peace process. The declaration was drawn up when a meeting of the World Bank’s Consultative Group (CG) early in September 1994 had to be cancelled owing to disagreement concerning references to Jerusalem in project documents, which could have weakened donor coordination. The Oslo declaration was a way of committing the parties to avoiding similar problems in the future.

The declaration covers the difficulties connected with international assistance to the Palestinians and underlines the importance of providing immediate payments for budgetary purposes (e.g. for the police), coordination between donor countries, and the setting up of the PA’s revenue collection system so that the assistance can be angled towards long-term infrastructure projects.

Interim Agreement (Oslo II agreement)

Washington, 28 September 1995.

Parties: Israel, PLO. Witnesses: USA, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Norway, EU.

The Interim Agreement, with its seven annexes and nine maps, is the most important and most comprehensive agreement to date between Israel and the PLO (over 300 pages). The main purpose of this agreement was to extend Palestinian self-government on the West Bank through the withdrawal of Israeli military forces and the holding of democratic elections.

The agreement includes detailed provisions concerning Palestinian institutions, for example their composition and size, as well as regulations on the election of a Palestinian Council and a president. (Elections were held on 20 January 1996 for a Council consisting of 88 members and a president). The agreement also regulates the Israeli regrouping on the West Bank, various security measures, the Palestinian police and confidence-building measures. The West Bank is to be divided into three categories of zones on the basis of the composition of the population and security-related aspects.

The seven annexes of the agreement regulate Israeli regrouping on the West Bank, security measures, Palestinian institutions (e.g. the police), holy sites, elections, economic relations, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation projects, the release of prisoners from Israeli jails and a description of people-to-people cooperation.

The Hebron Protocol

Initialled 15 January 1997, approved 16 January 1997

Parties: Israel, PLO

The protocol and its annexes relate to the Israeli regrouping and other agreed measures in Hebron in accordance with the provisions of the Interim Agreement. The protocol decides the scope of the regrouping (withdrawal from 80 per cent of the town), security measures and how the Palestinian police shall be armed, transfer of civil authority, and the establishment of TIPH II (the latter took place in accordance with a separate agreement of 21 January 1997).

The Wye River Memorandum

Signed in Washington on 23 October 1998

Parties: Israel and PLO

Witnesses: Jordan and USA

After 17 months’ standstill in the peace process, the parties agreed on the Wye River Memorandum following negotiations at Wye Plantation in the USA. The memorandum establishes that the Israeli withdrawal will continue, and that Israel will withdraw from a further 13 per cent of the occupied areas. The memorandum also contains detailed plans for further cooperation between the parties on the fight against terrorism and provocations from both sides.

A number of liaison committees were also set up for cooperation between the parties. These committees will either monitor individual areas within the peace process or submit proposals for the resolution of specific issues. The USA is participating as a third party in some of the new committees.

The agreement also contains provisions concerning the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the extradition from the Palestinian areas of individuals whom Israel believes to be responsible for terrorist actions.

The need for closer cooperation between the parties is also stressed in the agreement, and the parties also commit themselves to continuing or reactivating work in all committees established in accordance with previous agreements. As regards infrastructure, it was agreed that an airport and a new industrial complex would be opened in Gaza.

The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum

Signed in Sharm el-Sheikh on 4 September 1999

Parties: Israel and PLO

Witnesses: Egypt, Jordan and the USA

A new memorandum was signed in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh on 4 September 1999 and entered into force on 13 September. Its full name is the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum on Implementation Timeline of Outstanding Commitments of Agreements Signed and the Resumption of Permanent Status Negotiations. The agreement is over six pages long and contains the following main points:

Time limits for the final status negotiations: The parties are agreed that the final status negotiations will lead to the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. The parties will conclude a framework agreement concerning all final status issues five months after the commencement of final status negotiations, and the final status negotiations are to be completed one year after they commence. The final status negotiations began on 13 September 1999.

Israeli withdrawal: Gaza and the West Bank are divided into three categories of areas: Area A, where approximately 90 per cent of the Palestinian population resides and where the Palestinians have full control, area B, where the Palestinians have partial control but Israel exercises overall responsibility for security, and area C, where Israel has full control. According to the memorandum, the following plan for withdrawal of Israeli forces has been agreed upon:

  • on 5 September, 7 per cent are to be transferred from area C to area B (implemented)
  • on 15 November, 2 per cent are to be transferred from area B to area A
  • on 20 January 2000, 1 per cent are to be transferred from area C to area A and 5.1 per cent from area B to area A.

This means that the Palestinians will control approximately 40 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal.

Release of Palestinian prisoners: One of the most difficult issues prior to the signing of the agreement was that of the release of Palestinian prisoners. Here the parties have agreed that Israel will release 200 prisoners on 5 September (implemented), and 150 prisoners on 8 October (implemented). However, no mention is made in the agreement of the category of prisoners to be released. Israel has also undertaken to release a further, unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners before the next Ramadan (early in 2000).

Routes of safe passage: The parties are to conclude a Safe Passage Protocol by 30 September at the latest. In accordance with this protocol, a southern route of safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank is to be opened on 1 October. The parties are then to agree on the specific location of a northern route of safe passage by 5 October. The location of the crossing points for the northern and southern routes of safe passage is not to be allowed to prejudice the final status negotiations.

This page was last updated October 31, 1999 by the editors