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Norway-Israel Relations: Friends… For the Most Part

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

By: Jacob Lewis

Although not traditionally involved in Middle East relations, Norway has a relationship with the state of Israel that is historically friendly. However, their relationship has been dynamic. The Norwegian government was not pro-Zionist before the inception of the state, followed by a long period of mostly amiable relations between Norway and Israel, until the period after the Six Day War began producing some divergence in their relationship.

Of all the Scandinavian countries, Norway has the most affable relationship with Israel. However, there was a difficult start to their friendship. The Norwegian government viewed the Zionist goal of the establishment of a state as “unrealistic” because “such a small area as Palestine could not be developed to feed so many people. Its strategic location and the oil interests attached… made the area vulnerable to great-power rivalry… the Jews would be surrounded on all sides by hostile Arabs.” Although this line of thinking is not pro-Arab, it cannot be classified as supportive of a Jewish state. In 1946, Norway’s leading Labour Party believed that the Jews ought to assimilate into European society instead of establishing a state, especially because they believed socialism could make Europe more welcoming. However, due to the large number of Jews that remained in displaced persons’ camps and an unwillingness to allow Jews to immigrate to Western counties including Norway, the Norwegian government’s view began to change.

A meeting between Labour Member of Parliament Aase Lionaes and a non-Zionist Jew who represented the “Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization” occurred at the first United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1946. This changed the Norwegian government’s stance to where they began to support seeking land for Jewish colonization outside of Palestine even though many Jews did not support this. Eventually in 1947, Norway “reluctantly… voted in favour of the [UN partition plan of Palestine], for the first time supporting a pro-Zionist solution [to the Jewish problem in Europe and the conflict in Palestine].” Although the Norwegians still preferred the colonization of an uninhabited area for the Jews, such a plan had little to no support, and the feasible solution was to go along with the UN majority in supporting the partition.

Things changed when Israel was established. When the state of Israel came into being, most parties in the government across the political spectrum supported recognizing the state. Public opinion reflected this support as well. Most Norwegians were sympathetic towards Israel because of the idea that Arabs threatened the existence of the state. However, the Foreign Ministry differed in its opinion. They were often critical of Israel’s demands and still supported Norway’s old vision for the future of the Jewish people. The Foreign Ministry was primarily concerned with protecting Norway’s foreign policy interests, so because “Israel seemed destined to a conflict-filled future… [and] most of Norway’s friends and allies had not yet recognized Israel” they were not rushing into recognizing Israel. Additionally, only “Britain had more ships than Norway passing through the Suez Canal… [and Norway] was heavily involved in transporting oil from the… Arab states,” thus maintaining good relationships with the Arab states was of the utmost importance to the Foreign Ministry. Eventually, because of British de facto recognition of Israel and pressure from the Labour government’s pro-recognition stance, the state of Israel was recognized by Norway in 1949. At this early juncture, Norway was also different from Denmark and Sweden in that it supported Israel’s membership in the UN while they did not.

Following recognition, Norway and Israel became quite close, especially between Norway’s Labour Party and Israel’s MAPAI. This occurred for various reasons. There was guilt on the Norwegian’s side for not assisting the Jews during the Holocaust when “approximately 700 [Norwegian] Jews [were rounded up by the Nazis] … only 25 survived.” Both the Norwegian Labour Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were also held in concentration camps. Additionally, the presence of the Evangelical Lutheran Church brought a religious meaning to the creation of the Jewish state to Norwegians. All of these political and religious factors, together with the crashing of an airplane with 27 Jews from North Africa in Oslo, brought Norway and Israel closer.

The plane crash brought the leaders of the two countries together. The Labour government of Norway wanted to build a “Kibbutz Norway” in Israel in honor of the children who died, and so some officials visited Israel and came back with a fervor to assist Israel with its issues. Norwegian officials and the public supported Israel, and thus took positions such as “the Palestinians had [fled Palestine] because the surrounding Arab states had told them to do so” and that the Jewish state would be threatened by their return, especially as the state was focusing on the immigration of more Jews. Norway in the UN also sided with Israel, such as dividing control of Jerusalem instead of internationalizing it and regarding Israel’s responses to Arab infiltrations as defensive maneuvers against the threatening Arabs. Although the Foreign Ministry attempted to moderate Norway’s positions, the tone was set by those such as Labour Party Secretary Haakon Lie, who set up a campaign named “Let Israel Live.” Lie’s intent was to mobilize supporters to influence the Socialist International to come to Israel’s aid, including coming just short of a brokered arms deal with Norway. Norway sold heavy water, which is used in nuclear reactors, to Israel for its nuclear program. Additionally, Lie was of the opinion that Israel acted in self-defense during the 1956 Suez War. It is fair to say that during the late 1940s and 1950s, Norway and Israel had a friendly relationship.

Norway’s government officials and public changed their perception of Israel starting in the 70s and 80s. 67% of Norwegians in 1971 wanted Israel to “retreat to the borders of the pre-Six day war,” Israel was “criticized for its second invasion of Lebanon in 1982” due to Norway’s contribution of UN forces there, and official talks began between Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg and Yasser Arafat in 1989. All of these events contributed to a marked decline in the relationship between Norway and Israel, although considerable intelligence sharing, among other partnerships, remained. Norway’s decision to hold “behind-the-scenes negotiations between the PLO and Israel that led to the signing of the 1993 Declaration of Principles,” or the Oslo Accords, did not alter the relationship between Norway and Israel much. However, young Palestinians developed a negative opinion of Norway in the aftermath, as “Oslo was criticized as the beginning of the end of any hope for… Palestinian sovereignty” since there has been no meaningful change in the status of the Palestinians since then.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada, the growth of settlements, and the 2014 war in Gaza have all negatively affected the Norwegian’s official and public views of Israel. After Israel’s launching of operation “Defensive Shield” in 2002, 44% of Norwegians felt the most sympathetic towards the Palestinians and 9% towards Israel. 68% believed Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories. The Norweigian Labour government recognized the Hamas unity government in 2007, deviating from its support of Israel. Norwegian civil society groups worked to “[expose] Israel’s continued violations of international law [surrounding settlements],” which further deepened Norwegian discontent with Israel. There has been a clear pro-Palestinian shift among Norwegians. Only the right-wing, populist Progress Party is now explicitly pro-Israel, while the socialist parties “advocate… an economic boycott of Israel.” This is a deviation from the old consensus between the conservatives and social democrats in Norway.

Despite the shift in relations between Norway and Israel to being more critical of the state, relations between the two nations are still generally positive. The center-right government of Norway has “enhanced cooperation with Israel with fewer strings attached [than what EU policy calls for] … this applies to new trade deals, gas exploration, etc.” This is a disconnect between the more pro-Palestinian view of the Norwegian people and their government’s policies vis-à-vis Israel. Economic and political cooperation is still important to both Norway and Israel. Despite their differences, Norway and Israel retain a friendly relationship.

Works Cited

Pace, Michelle. “Norway’s ambiguous approach towards Israel and Palestine.” Global Affairs 4, no. 1 (2018): 65-76.

Reuters Staff. “Norway recognizes Palestinian unity government.” Reuters, March 17, 2007.

Sachar, Howard M. Israel and Europe: An Appraisal in History. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Waage, Hilde Henriksen. “How Norway Became One of Israel’s Best Friends.” Journal of Peace Research 37, no. 2 (2000): 189-211.

Waage, Hilde Henriksen. “Norway and a major international crisis: Suez – the very difficult case.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 9, no. 3 (1998): 211-241.

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