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 By: Dr. Are John Knudsen .*

 This paper was presented by Dr. Are John Knudsen at the Conference on “The Eurpean Foreign Policy towards the Palestinian Issue” that was held by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations in Beirut, on 3-4/11/2010


In this paper we will discuss Norwegian foreign policy towards Palestine from the “back-channel talks” leading up to the 1993 Oslo Accords until the present. First, we will provide a short introduction to Norwegian foreign policy doctrine. In light of this, we will discuss Norway’s role in the Oslo Process, including the extensive critique directed at the Norwegian efforts in Palestine. We will conclude the paper with some preliminary observations on the recent changes in Norwegian foreign policy and the ramifications of these policy changes in relation to Norway’s future role in Palestine.

Punching above its weight

Disproportionate to its size, Norway has at times played a significant role on the international scene. Of particular relevance, and at the time considered the pinnacle of Norwegian diplomacy, Norway played a pivotal part in the early stages of the Oslo Process by facilitating the back channel talks leading up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 (Waage 2002). This disproportionality between size and ambition has been symptomatic for Norway’s post Cold War foreign policy doctrine – a value based doctrine which posits that small states can, and should, play an important role in promoting human rights worldwide first set out by the Norwegian academic turned-diplomat Jan Egeland (Egeland 1988). The central idea is that small states have fewer foreign interests and are free from the many restrictions hampering great powers, and that they therefore can take on mediator responsibilities in a more effective manner.

[1]  The relative weakness of small states is thus turned into a foreign policy asset: working as neutral and “selfless” mediators in concert with multilateral organizations and the great powers, small states can wield considerable influence. As we shall see, Egeland’s thesis became the paradigmatic starting point for a new Norwegian foreign policy with the Oslo Process as its highpoint.

This “potent small state” paradigm was introduced already in the mid 1980s, but it gained prominence and became a de facto part of Norwegian foreign policy doctrine first with the end of the Cold War (Østerud 2006, 304). Prior to this, and notwithstanding Norway’s considerable spending on aid and development from the 1950s onwards, Norwegian foreign policy was classical realist, i.e., first and foremost focused on security and defined by Norway’s membership in NATO and close relationship with the US (Toje 2010, 208). When the Cold War ended, however, so did the operative conditions of the bipolar world (Østerud 1994), and this new world order gave many former satellites of the US and the Soviet Union more leeway in their foreign policy (Smith 1997; Toje 2010). For Norway, this change came as a move away from the narrow, security oriented realism, towards a wider, humanitarian, and idealistic “policy of involvement” (Knutsen 1997; Utenriksdepartementet 1989). In short, the end of the Cold War constituted a major structural change that allowed Norway to reformulate and reorient its foreign policy, and following this new doctrine take on a disproportionally big role the Middle East peace efforts.

Though the idealistic goals of this “policy of involvement” doctrine is the defining characteristic of Norwegian foreign policy after the Cold War, the overt collusion between government and non governmental organizations in the development and implementation of Norway’s foreign policy is also important. In particular certain academic institutions in Norway have been instrumental both in formulating and effectuating foreign policy, as these institutions at times have functioned as recruitment bases for the diplomatic corps (Lange, Pharo, and Østerud 2009; Toje 2010, 212; see also Tvedt 2003, 212). [2] Two important and relevant examples of such recruitment are Jan Egeland and Terje Rød Larsen. Both started out as academics, and later played important roles in the back channel talks between the PLO and Israel. As an academic, it was Jan Egeland who introduced the “potent small state” paradigm at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) in 1985. Later, he came to serve as Deputy Foreign Minister, and it was from this position that he helped initiate the Oslo “back-channel” and put his “potent small state” thesis to the test (Waage 2002). Another academic-turned-diplomat, Terje Rød Larsen, founded and led Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies in the early 1980s, and played a crucial role in establishing contact between representatives from the PLO and Israel early on in the so-called back-channel talks.

This short introduction to Norwegian foreign policy in the post Cold War era is a necessary backdrop to a discussion on Norwegian foreign policy towards Palestine for two reasons: First, it indicates that Norway’s role in the Oslo Process was the product of an expressed foreign policy doctrine. Though it admittedly is a unique accomplishment for such a small country to play a decisive role on the international stage, Norwegian foreign policy towards Palestine was but one example of the “foreign policy of involvement” doctrine as guided by the “potent small state” thesis.[3]  Second, as indicated by the collusion between government and non governmental organizations, Norway’s role in the Oslo Accords also depended on certain key persons – a topic that will be dealt with in more detail later.

Norway and the Oslo Process

 The Oslo Process was established trough a combination of factors that has been described in detail elsewhere. In brief, by the late 1980s, a new generation of academics-turned diplomats like Jan Egeland converged in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). At the time, the Director of Fafo, Terje Rød-Larsen, worked on “living conditions” surveys in Palestine. This research brought Rød Larsen into contact with both Israeli politicians and PLO officials, placing him in a position to talk to both parties. The failed Madrid Conference (1991), opened for a secret back-channel to be established with Norway as key facilitator.
The “back-channel” was at first informally recognized by Norwegian Foreign Minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, and later elevated when his successor, the late Johan Jørgen Holst, formally involved the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Later, the US was made aware of the Norwegian efforts, and the then Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, gave the process his blessing. The secret negotiations stretched over more than a year were formalised as the Oslo Accords signed on the lawn of the White House in Washington D.C. in 1993. The key elements of the Accords were setting up a the rudiments of a Palestinian State, with a President, Prime Minister, Cabinet and a provisional National Assembly, the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA would control of West Bank, zoned into three categories (A, B, and C, depending on the degree of Israeli control), but eventually taking full control when the process ended. There was no provision in the accords specifically targeting the role of Israel settlements hence the problem of continued expansion of settlements and settlers on the West Bank and Jerusalem ever since.
After the initial success of the Accords, the election of Arafat as the first President, the problems multiplied over the phased take-over, suicide bombings and incursion that stopped the process (which never progressed towards the so-called “final status talks” on “borders, Jerusalem and refugees”). Despite the failure of the Oslo Accords, the principles it established endured, such as international support for a two-state solution and the continued support for the PA and its institutions. All later peace plans have since used this formula (e.g., the so-called “Roadmap for Peace”). In this sense, central parts of the Oslo Accords endured, although the full realisation never materialised as originally planned. The failure, did, however, have a significant impact on the Norwegian ME-policies and for the key architects behind the Oslo Process.

Critique of the Oslo Process

The failures of the Oslo Process did not go unnoticed in Norway. The main critic was the Norwegian historian Hilde Henriksen Waage, who was then based at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO). In her PhD-thesis, based on extensive archival research and interviews, she described the long historical relationship, developed since the 1950’s, between the Norwegian Labour Party (“Arbeiderpartiet”) and its Israeli counterpart (Waage 1996). These historical ties, she claimed, had made Norway “Israel’s best friend” (Waage 2000). In later articles, Waage developed this thesis further claiming that Norway was not an impartial broker in the negotiations between Israel and the PLO, and was caught between a “strong state and a weak belligerent” as she puts it (Waage 2005). Norway, she claimed, was in fact running errands for Israel, and presenting Israeli positions to Palestinian negotiators as a fait accompli.

Waage’s critique annoyed the MFA and especially those centrally involved with the negotiations. Her methods and sources were questioned and her findings criticized as biased and preconceived. More controversy arose when Waage in 2005 announced that the archives covering of the most critical phase of the Oslo Process negotiations (January to September 1993) had been missing since 2001 (Waage 2008). The missing archives became a big media story of a potential “cover up” by those involved and raised questions of whether the missing files had ended up in the private archives of Terje Rød-Larsen, a key negotiator in the Oslo Process. The missing document where also searched for in the National Archives in Norway, but to no avail. In the end, the MFA declared that the “missing files” were no longer a concern of the ministry: the files, if they existed at all, where not government property, but the private property of the negotiators such as Terje Rød-Larsen (2008: 60). [4]

Waage not only wrote academic articles critical of the Oslo Process but forcefully elaborated these findings in interviews with the Norwegian press. This made her the most eloquent critic of the Oslo Process and by implication the main architects of the accords. The MFA did not take this critique lightly and forcefully struck back. They also noted that Waage had been granted full access to the archives and that the Ministry had funded most her research. It is important to acknowledge that in her critique of the Oslo Process, she was attacking what Waage terms the “Oslo Mystique” and the domestically at least, the Oslo Process had made Oslo the “Capital of Peace” a shiny example of Norway’s and Norwegian diplomats achievements. The critique therefore struck at the heart of what had become, in effect, a national icon: Norway as a “Peace Nation”.

Remnants of idealism

A final attempt to salvage the Oslo Accords was made at Camp David in 2000, but after these talks failed – and with the outbreak of the second intifada later that year – it became clear that the Oslo Process was dead (Rabbani 2001). Importantly, the PA and its associated institutions survived Oslo, despite being established by the Oslo Accords (Shlaim 2005, 258). Notwithstanding the dire and very real consequences of the end of Oslo and the second intifada, Norway’s policy towards Palestine changed little. Norway kept committed to the two state solution and the now stalled “peace process”, and remained a major donor to the Palestinians, both bilaterally and as the head of the Ad Hoc Liason Committee (AHLC) (More 2008; Norad 2008).

It should be noted that for a small country such as Norway, consistency in foreign policy is essential (Lange, Pharo, and Østerud 2009, 25; Lunde et al. 2008, 10-11). As such, and though the failure of the Oslo Process was a serious blow to Norwegian foreign policy, the “policy of involvement” doctrine (in Norwegian: “engasjementspolitikken”) continued to guide Norwegian foreign policy under shifting governments throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s. Rather than re evaluating the doctrine – and despite failures to mediate and negotiate peace in a range of conflicts – Norway kept with its “policy of involvement” as exemplified by Norway’s role in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Khartoum government and the SPLA guerrillas in Sudan, the 2006 7 multilateral efforts to mediate in Somalia, and the considerable financial and political capital spent on the failed negotiations between the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam and the Sri Lanka government (2002–08).

It is against this backdrop Norway’s continued “policy of involvement” in Palestine should be understood. As a small country, Norway can not afford a sudden change in its foreign policy, despite the indications that a reorientation might be needed. Too much financial and political capital has been spent and has been promised, in effect tying Norway’s international image and role with its mediating efforts and as a major donor to Palestine and other countries. In particular Norway’s role as one of the major donors to Palestine is important and both in the capacity as the chair of the AHLC, (Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee – Palestine), multilaterally through the UN system, as well as bilaterally, Norway transfers massive amounts to Palestine. Although the exact numbers are hard to come by, Norwegian bilateral aid to Palestine amounts to at least USD 110 million per year (Norad 2008), which comes in addition to multilateral efforts and commitments, thus the total figure could be closer to USD 160 million. [5]

The huge transfers to the Palestinian Territories have been criticized for a number of reasons, both domestically and internationally. In the domestic debate on foreign policy, Norway’s role as a big aid donor has been criticized as a failed attempt to buy international influence (Toje 2010). Internationally, it has been argued that donors to Palestine in effect subsidize the Israeli occupation. As the international community pick up the bill after destructive Israeli incursions into the Territories, Israel is absolved “of its obligations vis à vis the Palestinian civilian population as the Occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention” (More 2008: 173). Furthermore, as these funds are mostly provided with no political conditionality, Norway, as other international donors, is sponsoring the rampant corruption in the Territories. In short, as noted during a recent seminar on Norway’s civil society sector support to Palestine, Norway presently does not put political any conditions on its funding.[6]  There seems at the moment a certain unwillingness to use economic sanctions (“conditionality”) to push for changes in Israeli policies.

An important exception to this absence of political conditionality came after Hamas’s election victory in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (Zweiri 2006). All the main donors and involved players found themselves scrambling to formulate a coherent response and a suitable long term strategy to this new political situation in Palestine. After some initial back and forth, the Norwegian response fell in line with the three conditions put forward by the Middle East Quartet (US, UN, EU, and Russia), i.e., that Hamas had to renounce violence, recognize Israel, and honour previous agreements (Utenriksdepartementet 2006). Norway, therefore, would neither meet with Hamas representatives nor channel aid money to the Hamas government. Like other major donors, Norway instead continued to channel funds via the office of the PA President (Mahmoud Abbas), despite the pre election consensus that the widespread corruption in the PA called for funds to be transferred to the Palestinians through other channels (Knudsen and Ezbidi 2007).

By falling in line with the international response to Hamas’s victory, Norway departed from its traditional independence in the Middle East peace process. Though it is difficult to pin point the exact moment and reasons for this small but important change in foreign policy, it seems that the change of government after the 2005 elections in Norway was crucial. Notwithstanding the need for consistency in the foreign policy of small countries, the new foreign minister from 2005, Jonas Gahr Støre (Labour Party) [7],  did initiate a “centrist turn” in Norwegian foreign policy by more closely aligning Norway’s Middle East policy with that of the US and Europe. However, Støre, as his precursors, continued to emphasize Norway as an international broker of peace and promoter of human rights, though he downplayed the “policy of involvement” as part and parcel of Norway’s foreign policy.

Regardless of this “centrist turn”, the “small state” paradigm still influenced Norwegian foreign policy to some extent, as indicated when Norway in 2007 met officially with Hamas. This happened after the National Unity Government (NUG) was established, a coalition government aimed at ending the international boycott of the PA. Though the NUG only lasted a few months, it led many countries, including Norway, to normalize relations with the PA ( 2007). In contrast to other countries, however, Norway also officially met with Hamas, when Deputy Secretary of State Raymond Johansen met the Hamas PM, Ismael Haniye ( 2007; VG Nett 2007). While the visit provoked a harsh response from Israel, the meeting was indicative of the continued influence of the “small state” paradigm on Norwegian foreign policy. However, it is also possible that Norway was asked to by the Quartet to serve as a conduit for talks with the new Hamas government by the Quartet, despite the almost unanimous international boycott of the movement. As a non-EU member state and therefore not bound by the EUs terror-listing of Hamas, Norway could meet with Hamas and gauge their policies and intentions on behalf of the greater powers (Østerud interviewed by 2009).

Realism revived (2005-10)?

Despite Norway’s meeting with Hamas in 2007, Norwegian foreign policy had started to change. While the “policy of involvement” doctrine and “potent small state” thesis was instrumental for Norway’s role in the Oslo Process, the Oslo Accords were now in tatters (Shlaim 2005, 258), and Norway had little to show for after mediating in a range of conflicts around the globe. The idealistic “policy of involvement” doctrine that had been introduced in 1989, and was the last major policy document guiding Norwegian foreign policy (Utenriksdepartementet 2009). Since then, it had become clear that Norway indeed was a small country – and that there are serious limits to what a small country can achieve.

In retrospect, it seems that the dramatic structural changes following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union had opened a window of opportunity allowing ambitious small states such as Norway to take on a larger international role. When the dust settled, and it became obvious that the New World Order in fact was much like the old world order, realism and interest politics again took precedence in foreign policy (Toje 2010, 215). Norway had been allowed to “punch above its weight” as it were, but by the end of the 2000s it was obvious that a new foreign policy doctrine was needed. To accommodate this need, Foreign Minster Støre initiated the Refleks project in 2007, inviting scholars, pundits and the public to debate and to provide input to a revised foreign policy. [8]

In this sense, Støre’s approach to foreign policy was both more populist and more academic than any of his predecessors and he was consistently ranked as the most popular and able cabinet minister in newspaper polls. Thus, unlike his predecessors, Støre wanted to engage research and researchers towards the policy goal of “Peace and Reconciliation” setting up a unit with this name under the MFA providing research funding (2005)[9],  followed later by funding a new “Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre” (NOREF) located in Oslo. Again, the idea was that research could help Norwegian peace-building efforts, as well be a clearing house for new ideas and approaches to peace-building.

The final report produced by the Refleks project was presented to the Norwegian parliament, and outlined a Norwegian foreign policy more focused on “interests” than on human rights promotion (Utenriksdepartementet 2009). The document indicated a reorientation of Norwegian foreign policy, away from the altruistic and holistic, and towards a classical realist foreign policy. And, while the “policy of involvement” remains a part of Norwegian foreign policy, the relative importance assigned to humanitarian aid, peace and reconciliation work has been considerably reduced, as Norwegian foreign policy now is more expressed focused on security and economic interests, including the sensitive northern Norway region bordering Russia (in Norwegian, “Nordområdene”) (Gahr Støre 2010).

Note, however, that this “centrist turn” indicated in the foreign policy document is only marginally different from Norwegian foreign policy in the 1990s and 2000s. It seems more of a reprioritization of policies than a complete overhaul of Norwegian foreign policy. Partly because of this, and partly because not enough time has passed, it is difficult to evaluate and measure the effects of Norway’s updated foreign policy.

On the one hand, it seems as if Norway has come to play a smaller and less visible role on the international scene. In response to different Israeli actions such as the recent attack on the Gaza flotilla, the assassination of a Hamas representative in Dubai and the decision to end the building moratorium in Jerusalem, Norway’s response was consistently milder and less critical of Israel than even the US. Some commentators, like Hilde Henriksen-Waage, has interpreted this as an indication that Norway is keen to be involved with the peace negotiations yet again (Waage interviewed in Aftenposten 2010).
On the other hand, however, and unlike his predecessors, Foreign Minister Støre has consistently described the Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza as an “occupation”, thus taking a critical stand vis à vis this part of Israeli policies. Norway has never, however, voiced any official position on the outcome of a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine. There is no official Norwegian position on “borders, Jerusalem, refugees”. Norway, like several other countries, maintains that this must be negotiated between the two parties.

At the present it is difficult to say anything definitive about the future direction of Norway’s foreign policy. What seems certain, however, is that Norway will continue to bankroll the current the state building efforts for a future Palestinian state. Norway has emerged as a strong backer of the current pragmatic policy of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and it seems that the realist, entrepreneurial approach, what that has been labelled “Fayyadism”, appeals to Norwegian policymakers.  When pressed on why Norway do not engage with Hamas, Norwegian diplomats apparently feel bound by the Norwegian Parliament’s (Stortinget) support for a two-state solution concluded between the State of Israel and the PLO, the two signatories of the Oslo Accords.

The “two-state solution” hence excludes Hamas, which either must be prevented from acting as a “spoiler” in the peace process or brought into the negotiations by joining the PLO, which would mean recognising the state of Israel (as in the PLO’s revised charter). Norway has neither the means nor the will to deliver on any of these issues. As summed up by Toje (2010), Norwegian peace efforts have had negligible impact and coupled with the realization that Norway indeed is a small country that only for a limited time was allowed to “punch above its weight”, Thus, Norway is currently funding peace efforts while staying out of the politics.


We have argued here that by the end of decade, Norway was not only suffering from a donor fatigue (in Norwegian: “bistandstrøtthet”), but that the “small states” paradigm had reached a dead end. Both in Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Yugoslavia and Palestine Norwegian peacemaking successes had become failures. A small, but rich state like Norway could not make peace, but can bankroll the expenses of key actors and parties. Thus, Norway is still a major donor to Palestine but not a major political player. Norway and Norwegian diplomats wanted to play a role, but there was no longer a clear role for a small, unaligned state. The “window of opportunity” that was there when the Oslo Process started had closed.
Yet, the “small states” paradigm that had guided Norwegian peace efforts since the mid 1980s had not been replaced by a new one. Egeland’s dictum “Impotent Superpower: Potent Small State” had now been reversed: superpowers lead, small states follow. Norway had not found a new foreign policy paradigm to replace the aging “small state” one and instead sought to harmonise two very different foreign policy modes – the idealist and the realist – under the label “policy of involvement”.


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 * Are Knudsen and Frode Løvlie: Dr Are Knudsen is senior researcher and Frode Løvlie is PhD-candidate at CMI. The views and interpretations in this paper are those of the authors and need not reflect those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), its embassies or liaisons.

[1] Another argument in the “potent small state” paradigm is that small states have more streamlined and transparent bureaucracies.
[2] This collusion or cooperation has been dubbed the “Norwegian Model”, though it arguably is less peculiar than some authors have argued, as research institutes and other non governmental organizations are important for the foreign policy in many countries.
[3] This doctrine has prompted Norway to take on a mediator role in a range other conflicts, e.g., Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti, Congo, Somalia, and the Sudan.
 [4] There was more controversy around Terje Rød-Larsen when, in 2002, it became known that he and his wife Mona Juul had each received USD 50,000 from the Israeli Peres Centre in 1999 in recognition for their work on the Oslo Accords. None of them had declared the money to Norwegian tax authorities nor, apparently, informed the MFA.
 [5]The figure is based on a briefing at a seminar in Jericho organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Oslo) and the Norwegian Representative Office (Ramallah), 27–28 April, 2010.
 [6] Comments during seminar in Jericho attended by the first author, 27–28 April, 2010.
 [7] Støre had previously been Special Advisor and later Chief of Staff to Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg (2000-01), but he was not a department insider, nor part of the Oslo Process generation. Støre was also leader of The Norwegian Red Cross (2003-05) and has also held several international posts.
 [8] Documents from the Refleks project, click here
 [9] Several key Norwegian research institutes, including CMI, as well as individual researchers have received project funding from this source.


Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 17/12/2010