Oslo stop for US president

SCANDINAVIA does reasonableness well, even when faced with unreason. The Oslo Accords of 1993 were as close as Israelis and Palestinians have come to looking each other in the eye, admitting neither side is going away, and jettisoning a bitter past for a better future.

By Roger Cohen

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Published: Tue 15 Jul 2008, 10:03 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

The mediation habit stayed with Norway, despite Oslo's collapse. Jonas Gahr Store, the Norwegian foreign minister, is a battle-hardened Mr. Dialogue. He took a personal terrorism course earlier this year while on a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan.

Store was in Kabul's Serena Hotel on Jan. 14 when explosions and machine-gun fire erupted in the lobby, a flight of stairs above where he sat. Carsten Thomassen, a prominent Norwegian diplomatic correspondent covering his visit, was killed by terrorists linked to the Taleban. At least five other people died; one of Store's media officials was gravely wounded.

The foreign minister was left with what he calls "anger and sadness." But in the course of a conversation with Store, on the margins of the Oslo Forum, a meeting on conflict resolution that Norway hosts with the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, it was less anger I felt from him than relentless reason.

Perhaps Store's worldview — that of a very critical NATO ally — is a good introduction to this post-unipolar moment, when the United States has bumped down to earth from its with-us-or-against-us apotheosis.

Store disapproves of the way the Bush administration has conducted the war on terror. "This paradigm of the war on terror, connecting all kinds of armed resistance around the globe in one huge ideological framework, as a new ideology at a stage in history when most of the major ideologies are gone, does not reflect the facts on the ground," he told me.

Norway's message to the United States is forthright: The next administration, whether headed by Barack Obama or John McCain, should pronounce the war on terror over. Because it has tended to isolate the United States, polarise the world, inflate the enemy, conflate diverse movements and limit scope for dialogue, its time has passed. "The way this has been framed, as an indefinite war that will last for decades, has impoverished our ability to understand the point of departure of the conflict and how we should deal with it," Store said. "Engaging is not weakness, and by not talking the West has tended to give the upper hand to extremists on the other side."

He continued: "Moderates lose ground if they cannot show tangible results. You don't engage at any price, but the price can come down and we can achieve more."

Norway has kept channels open to Hamas and to Syria. It has spoken with the Hamas leadership. It is convinced the West missed an opportunity by not engaging in March 2007 with the elected Palestinian national unity government composed of Fatah and Hamas members. It argues that elements of the Taleban can be drawn out of terror into politics through talks.

In all of this, Norway has used the greater diplomatic latitude it enjoys as a non-member of the European Union. The EU, like the United States, lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

"We have enormous reason to be upset with Hamas because it spent every day after Oslo trying to destroy Oslo," Store said. "But there is a strong realist tradition in Hamas oriented towards a political landscape. In general, it should be in our interest to get organizations out of military activity and into politics. The political working method has not been sufficiently tested."

Engaging, he insisted, does not mean lowering of requirements. It can be a means to set yardsticks, hold interlocutors accountable, and probe their thinking while surrendering nothing.

"If Hamas wants to be part of the real world, it has to end up accepting Israel's right to exist," Store said. "The rest of the world will never yield on that." It must also recognise the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the mainstream Fatah movement, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in negotiations.

For Norway, the Makkah accord of February 2007 came close enough to recognising past Palestinian commitments to Israel for the West to begin rigorous engagement with Hamas. It chose another course and mayhem ensued.

Store believes a "revisiting has started in US foreign policy in the direction of engagement" and this will "accelerate" under the next administration. "Part of this ideology of the war on terror has been the United States doing things by itself," he said. "Now we in Europe and Norway must expect to be more actively engaged by Washington."

That will bring demands as well as opportunities. Engagement begins with allies. It can be extended to enemies. It cannot be deterred by personal loss. An Oslo stop is in order for America's next president.

Roger Cohen writes Globalist column in International Herald Tribune

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