It is no wonder that Hilde Henriksen Waage's report "Peace making is a risky business" has drowned in the tears of Johan Jørgen Holst's widow Marianne Heiberg, and in the protests from those who were key players during the "Oslo process". A debate in the Norwegian mass media must necessarily be about the people, and not about what actually happened when Norwegian researchers and authorities became involved in peace creation in the Middle East. Hilde Henriksen Waage has also not only challenged the image created by the individuals, but also the image of a Norway as a central premise supplier for peace in the Middle East. The fact that the Oslo process has long been dead, that many both neutral observers and actors on both sides believe the approach was wrong, should pave the way for a more sober debate. That has not been the case.
Trying to look behind the tears and personal indignation, past the Oslo process as a national shrine, Hilde Henriksen Waage raises important questions not only about the role Norway played, but also whether it could have been possible to play a different role. And the answer to that may be no.
Many years before 1993, when the Oslo process became public, PLO's leadership with Yassir Arafat at the forefront had been calling for negotiations with Israel. Not everyone in the PLO, which is an umbrella for a number of organizations where Arafat's Fatah movement is the largest, liked Arafat's thoughts on going the way of negotiation. But the Palestinian leader received support for his line, and negotiations could be underway before, or for that matter for the first intifada. At that time, Israel refused to talk to the Palestinians. To that end, the PLO and the Palestinians had a too strong position in world opinion.
Only after the Gulf War in 1991 did the Israelis begin to move: the PLO and the Palestinians were maximally weakened after Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein, and after the Palestinians' cheers over Iraqi rocket fire in Israel. At the same time, the PLO's exile leadership in Tunis was losing control of the population in the occupied territories, after several years of a locally organized intifada – and after Israel's favoring movements such as Hamas. There are many indications that the PLO's exile leadership could have been completely unfolded had it not been for some form of agreement with Israel.
It was in this situation that Israel saw its cut to enter into talks. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that Israel could dictate the terms, but compared to a few years earlier, they faced an adversary fighting for survival. The consequence was that a not insignificant number of people on both sides initiated more or less informal talks on a peace plan, but at such a low level that neither the PLO leadership nor the Israeli government could be held "responsible" if the plans became known – or if they failed. When I visited Israel and Palestine in the summer of 1993, just weeks before the Oslo Canal became known, the "secret" talks on Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho were on everyone's lips. The only thing in the Oslo agreement that was not talked about was Oslo.
The fact that it was precisely the Norwegian channel that was lifted at a high political level on both sides is probably to a large extent due to chance. The Norwegian facilitators may have done a good job, be it confidence building measures, practical arrangements or suggestions for solutions. But Hilde Henriksen Waage has pointed out, probably quite rightly, that it needed something more: Norway had no opportunity to put power behind the process. Thus, it was Israel's power, and PLO's powerlessness, that controlled the process.
Now it is not a given that the result would have been better with the USA as a facilitator. They could either side with the Israelis, and force the PLO into an agreement that the population could not accept. Or they could put pressure on Israel for more comprehensive concessions. Then Israel was in a position to say no, even to the United States. Therefore, there is good reason to believe that one was precisely dependent on an actor who did not affect the balance of power between the parties – Norway. But in that sense, Norway's role was also to manage a fundamentally skewed distribution of power. And thus it is difficult to imagine anything other than that the Norwegian negotiators largely presented Israeli demands to the Palestinians, more than the other way around – without it necessarily meaning that the Norwegians would favor Israel.
Most of this is well-known material from the past, and neither startling nor particularly controversial. However, there are three parties who are interested in curbing such a presentation of the Oslo process:
First, the Norwegian facilitators, who honored the peace-making in the Middle East.
Secondly, the Israeli side, which does not exactly want to say that they got more than "deserved".
But not least, it is in the PLO dealers' interest to deny Henriksen Waage's conclusions. One cannot expect the PLO's people to admit that they were forced into an agreement more or less dictated by Israel. It would be political suicide, which is why the dealers rush to deny the conclusions.
Basically, this case is about one thing: Power prevails. And it should not surprise anyone.