In a week, President Shimon Peres will be received by King Harald V in the Royal Palace in Oslo, at a gala banquet to which senior members of the Norwegian Jewish community will be invited. This will be the first official visit to Norway by an Israeli president, though several prime ministers preceded him.
“Peres has a special standing due to the Oslo agreement,” Norwegian Ambassador Svein Sevje said. “I would like to think he has a special relationship with Norway because of that and the Nobel Prize, and I’m very happy this [visit] is possible before the end of his term.”
Days after Peres’s visit, Norway will celebrate the bicentennial of its constitution, signed before the country gained independence from Sweden. Norwegian embassies around the world are holding programs in honor of the milestone, and the event Sevje plans to host has a unique focus.
When the constitution was written, Sevje explained, it included an article declaring that Jesuits and Jews were not allowed in Norway. The line was taken out 40 years later.
“I think this is interesting, because the constitution was written in a time of liberalization and because there weren’t many Jews [in Norway] at the time,” Sevje said. “This shows there can be anti-Semitism even when there aren’t Jews around.”
As for the reason behind the clause, Sevje conjectured it was rooted in “classical anti-Semitism, coupled with classical skepticism of the pope and ignorance.”
Sevje said his willingness to bring up less savory parts of his country’s past comes from a generally open culture in Norway.
“Our informality links us to Israelis. Israelis are informal and spontaneous, like us, but probably more direct than we are,” he quipped.
“The media give a negative picture of our relationship,” he said, “but many Norwegians visit Israel, and there was a large number of volunteers in kibbutzim in the old days and even now,” including Sevje himself, who picked apples on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in 1968 and 1971.
The last time Norway made news in Israel was in January, when its $810 billion oil fund decided to stop investing in Africa Israel Investments and its construction subsidiary Danya Cebus because they are involved in building in east Jerusalem.
“I get a little impatient when this is made a focal point,” said Sevje, who has been a diplomat for over 20 years and is serving in Israel for the second time, after being deputy ambassador in 1994-1998 and Norway’s first representative to the Palestinian Authority.
“I suppose it’s hard for the Israeli media to understand, but the fund has an ethical committee and is not supposed to invest in certain fields,” he explained. “It doesn’t invest in companies that use child labor or companies that aren’t environmentally friendly or companies that break international law according to our interpretation, which is the same as that of the UN.”
The decision not to invest in Africa Israel and Danya Cebus made the news because “people don’t realize the amount we invest in Israel is substantial.”
Sevje pointed out that his country still invests billions of shekels in Israel. An embassy rep estimated that the investments – in Teva, government bonds and stocks – add up to over NIS 8b.
“The bottom line is that Norway sees Israel as part of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and a normal country to invest in. I repeat, a normal country,” Sevje emphasized.
“But membership in the OECD means Israel has privileges and obligations.”
Some in Jerusalem saw the divestment decision as strange, because in September, Norway elected what some officials said is the friendliest Norwegian government toward Israel since the 1970s.
However, Sevje made it clear that despite political changes in his home country and the constant changes in this area, Norway’s position hasn’t budged: It’s for Israel, but critical of its presence in the West Bank, and it favors a two-state solution.
“This government is center- Right and the former was center-Left, but there’s a lot of consensus [in Norway] about human rights, international law and our differences with Israeli policies,” he said. “There is no major change regarding the occupation.”
At the same time, Norway has a clear policy opposing boycotts on Israel. The embassy is working to strengthen bilateral relations through economic development – most of the salmon in Israel comes from Norway, while Israel exports electronic equipment – and defense issues. Norway even has a new cultural attaché that works to bring Norwegian authors and musicians to Israel.
“I hear a lot of Norwegian heavy metal bands have come to Israel, but that’s not for my generation,” Sevje said, chuckling.
Sevje suggested that some in Norway can understand Israelis’ pain when it comes to terrorist attacks and releasing Palestinian prisoners, following Anders Breivik’s 2011 attacks on a summer camp and government building, claiming 77 lives.
Breivik received the maximum prison term in Norway, 21 years, which can be extended for five years at a time as long as he’s considered a threat.
The sentence has become a major point of discussion.
“Some say it’s not enough, but others say, he already did what he did – will he also destroy our legal system?” Sevje said.
Last week’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation didn’t bring any changes in policy, either, though Sevje met with Israelis and Palestinians to discuss the matter and said Norway is “watching what’s happening very carefully.”
“We think that Palestinian reconciliation is important for [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] to be able to say he controls all of what the UN calls Palestine,” he stated. “Many Israelis argue that they cannot reach an agreement with the PA because Hamas controls part of the area.”
Sevje pointed to Norway’s policy seven years ago, the previous time the Palestinian factions reunited, explaining that “there was never a question of recognizing Hamas as such. It was a question of how to relate to the Palestinian government, in which Hamas were not only members, but [were represented by] the prime minister.”
At the time, Norway changed the way it channels funds to the PA so it wouldn’t reach Hamas, but it has yet to make any changes and is waiting to see what happens with the current unity government.
He warned “many things will change for Israel” if it stops negotiations toward a two-state solution.
Sevje maintained a positive outlook on Israel and his post here, expressing hope Israelis will warm to his country.
“I hope Israelis will experience Norway and see it as more friendly than they think,” he said