Norway and Arab states trying to turn ‘false promises’ of Oslo Accords into Gaza solution

Foreign Minister tells The National of need to invest in Palestinian Authority – but only if it is prepared to reform

People inspect damage to their homes caused by Israeli air strikes on January 18 in Rafah, Gaza. Getty
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Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide and several Arab countries are working on a plan to transform the “false promise” of the Oslo Accords into a tangible solution that ends the war in Gaza and ultimately establishes a Palestinian state.

There is a growing consensus among European countries that movement towards such a state will be necessary in the near future, despite the discrepancies in public positions between various European countries.

Speaking to The National in an in-depth interview, Mr Eide said there is a need to invest, politically and economically, in the Palestinian Authority, but that it had to reform. Mr Eide was in Davos this week attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, where Gaza and the wider regional dynamics were the focus of many of his meetings. He believes a two-state solution is “possible and necessary”, but needs much work.

Some Arabs and Palestinians reject the idea that a “day after” scenario in Gaza should be worked on currently when the focus should be on securing a ceasefire in the devastating Gaza war.

Mr Eide said : "To have a short-term solution, you need to be thinking about the long-term solution”, adding that “maybe from Israel, the thinking is just win the war and eliminate Hamas and then think of what to do, maybe from the other side, [the thinking is] just stop the war with the ceasefire; neither of those are solutions”. His strong belief is that the solution “is what comes later ... which prevents the eternal return of fighting”, and the continued cycles of violence.

Escaping those cycles “requires a political process and, so far, the best political process we know of is a process that can take us to Palestinian statehood, one [state] which is Gaza and West Bank, run by the Palestinian institutions, known as the PA [Palestian Authority]”. Referring to a previous interview with Reuters in which he suggested Norway was supporting a plan to help reform the Palestinian leadership, Mr Eide told The National: “It's up to the Palestinians who they choose … we have never suggested that we pick anybody else's government”.

However, he described how the leadership should be: "We do think that it should be a unitary leadership of the entire Palestine. And that's not going to happen overnight. But you need to think of how to get there”. He then said: “To get there, you need to maintain the authority, the credibility, the financial capacity, the political capacity of the PA we have today,” which rules the West Bank but is “struggling”.

Mr Eide emphasised that “they have to survive, and we need to strengthen them, we need to use our donor co-ordination role to strengthen them”. However, Mr Eide acknowledged that there are extensive problems with the PA, and said: “We have also been very honest with our friends that they need to modernise, upgrade and prepare for a bigger role.”

Mr Eide envisions that the PA “needs to be a credible authority in the West Bank, in a situation where maybe some Israeli settlements have to be withdrawn and so on, so that they will have a larger area in Gaza, that will be in the midst of reconstruction, psychologically and physically and the PA need to be prepared for that”.

The plan Mr Eide is working on, with others, is in part to increase the credibility of the Palestinian Authority among Palestinians and to convince Israel that there is a “partner for peace, which can also provide security for the Israelis, and of course, also for the Palestinians”. With the current deep divisions in Palestine, which are echoed with divisions in Israel, it is a tall order.

Mr Eide said: “You have two highly polarised societies. And it would be far better if you create some institutional set-up that can bring the Palestinians closer together.” Mr Eide said that numerous Arab countries agree with this assessment and that there is an effort now to “invest on the Palestinian side”, both politically and economically.

Recognising the need for the leadership of the Palestinian people has to come from within, Mr Eide declined to comment on who he believed could play a leadership role in Palestine. However, there is a growing consensus among countries working on this issue that the Palestinian Authority in its current make-up cannot be the one to lead Palestine in the future or to secure the independent state.

Names are being floated behind closed doors of who has credibility with the Palestinian people but would also be trusted by Arab and western countries, and with whom Israel would be willing to work. “When it comes to persons, I think they have to choose them themselves. But they have to reflect on that. And it has to have resonance in the Palestinian society … and there's a generational issue there to be addressed.

Much time would be required to rebuild the PA’s credibility, meanwhile, the war continues and the suffering of more than two million Palestinians increases, with concerns of famine and major illnesses spreading, in addition to the loss of life from continued Israeli bombardment. When pushed on the need to end the killing, Mr Eide responded strongly, defending his country’s track record.

“Norway calls for stopping the killing … we were the first western country to speak about the humanitarian pause … we were the first western country to use that framework, later that would become a sustained humanitarian ceasefire.” Norway voted in the UN for a ceasefire, which Mr Eide said “we were few Europeans then and now we are many because others came along”.

He added: “We're very clear on you're not getting anywhere without stopping the killing.” However, Mr Eide believes that is not enough because no political solution would emerge alone from a ceasefire. The situation and set-up of what preceded the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel is over. “Gaza is destroyed. And you cannot go back to October 7 in any sense. So you need to go towards something”, according to Mr Eide.

The Norwegian Foreign Minister showed empathy and understanding for the Palestinian people, saying: “I understand that if you're now a desperate family in Khan Yunis, you need to know, can I go back to North Gaza? My house is gone, I know that, but will there be a tent? Will there be water? So we need to deal with that.” Mr Eide explained that there are a number of phases ahead.

“There’s a stop the killing phase, that’s immediate preferably; then there is an immediate humanitarian phase which is concerned with shelter, food, water the doctors trying to restart the hospitals and so on, that has to happen.” But there is a “paradox” he said, and that Israel needs to be convinced to leave. He stressed that an “objective analysis” is that the Israeli army will not “just leave and let’s see what happens, there must be some kind of answer”.

The effort now is to have a plan that for the Israelis ensures security but “we also need to tell the Palestinians that, you know, we're not only trying to help you survive, we're actually trying to help you get what you've been wanting all the time, which is a political entity”.

Part of the goal is to “reduce the attraction of the more extreme groups and strengthen the authority of the PA if it's credible”, according to Mr Eide. The PA was set up after the Oslo Accords, however, “for Palestinians, this looked like a false promise, which I very much understand. For some Israelis, including people in the current government, this looked like a solution” in itself. Mr Eide said that the “process” that was launched after Oslo “was either falsely understood as a solution, which was wrong. Or it was interpreted as a false promise, which, in a sense was true, because at the time, it was a false promise”.

Isaac Herzog says Israel feels pain over Gaza suffering

Isaac Herzog says Israel feels pain over Gaza suffering

Mr Eide does not underestimate the enormity of the situation, but he is looking at solutions to get out of it. “The only good news in this horrible mess, with all the killing and dying and tragedy spreading, the only good news I can see is that many more countries are now actively looking for a solution”. He went on to say that “frankly, some of our good friends were more supportive in rhetoric than in reality. We believe that that has changed”.

The role of chair of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, set up after Oslo to co-ordinate the delivery of international aid to Palestinians, has given Norway both understanding and access to work on the Palestinian issue.

“Now there's a real, serious commitment. Many of the Arab states are ready to follow the UAE example and establish relations. But now they are very aware that you can't do that without the Palestinian settlement. And maybe part of the problem was that the perception among many Palestinians that they were forgotten, that suddenly Israel and the Arabs were dealing on their own, rightly or wrongly. And then the perception became a big problem.”

Mr Eide’s assessment is that Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, “who haven't yet normalised relations with Israel, will not do it without the Palestinian solution, but they are ready to do it if there is a Palestinian solution”. He added: “I agree with the Arab foreign ministers group that a regional peace provides an incentive to Israel, which is regional peace, which is then combined with a guarantee to support the development of a Palestinian state which is not run by foreign-supported extremists but run by people who are ready to work with Israel.”

Describing it as “one of the tragedies of the Middle East peace process”, Mr Eide believes that former US president Bill Clinton was wrong not to include the Arabs in the peace process around Camp David. He said that “if you'd had some kind of an Arab peace plan around that we might have actually gotten the solution in Taba”. However, it was not just the lack of Arab presence in the process, as Mr Eide noted, “of course, we've had many years of governments in Israel that have not been very conducive to this. And we've seen this divide in Palestine, and the two are somewhat related, as they are not living separate lives and they fuel each other in a sense".

And while Mr Eide supports the establishment of the Palestinian state, his government has yet to recognise a Palestinian state. Responding to a question about why Oslo has not recognised a Palestinian state, Mr Eide said: “A very good day in my life, as foreign minister would be a day where I recognised Palestine. And we have recognised Palestine’s right to have a state.

Call for realism

"And last time I was foreign minister, we were directly involved and worked very closely with Palestine, representing the UN, on shaping the situation that led to its upgraded status as a non-member observer state.” However, he called for realism. “We're very adamant that I don't want the theoretical Palestinian state, I want to help create a Palestinian state, not the idea of a Palestinian state.” He stressed “the act of recognition, which of course is a big deal for countries like us, for Spain, it's not something we just throw out as a solidarity message. It should be part of the plan.

"But we had a solid majority in parliament saying [yes] when the government thinks the time is right, but not contingent on the final peace plan. So we can do it before the final peace plan, but it must be part of the process.

''There's this idea that something magical happens if states acknowledge Palestine ... but it doesn't really matter on the ground. But if it's part of a process towards something, it can matter on the ground.”

On South Africa’s case against Israel in the International Court of Justice accusing it of genocide, Mr Eide said: “These courts are for real and they are meant to be used. However, he would not comment on his country’s position about the case, while stating: “I welcome that Israel turns up to defend itself.” He also believes “the case already has an effect. And one of them is that they [the Israeli government] will have to be much more careful about all these statements that have come out by individual members of the government which can create trouble for Israel maybe as much as actions on the ground because genocide is about intent."

He added: “It’s not the number of people.. because you can kill a lot of people and not have it on the side of intent. And you can kill a few people with the genocide … so we’re following that with great interest."

Mr Eide is also concerned about the wider escalation of tensions in the region, calling it “horrible … this is exactly what we worried about three months ago, and then then they took some time before it happened, and now it's happening all around”. He added that the different problems of the region also have to be tackled. “You need to address these separate issues as well, like you need to stop the Houthis from attacking ships. But it is all related to the core problem of the non-solution of the Palestinian issue. So you need to address that and that will help us to reduce all the secondary effects.”

Updated: January 21, 2024, 5:23 PM