A changing wind blows through Israel-Norway relations

On the streets of Oslo thousands of miles from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Norwegians still feel connected to what plays out in the holy land.

November 7, 2016 06:55
A woman cycles past a banner of the Norwegian flag attached to a warehouse in Oslo, Norway.

A woman cycles past a banner of the Norwegian flag attached to a warehouse in Oslo, Norway.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In frigid Oslo, Norway, a city and country known among Israelis largely for its role in the brokering the Oslo Accords, a subtle shift is taking place. Some in the Norwegian government and hi-tech sector are looking at Israel not through the traditional lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as a potential partner in business, hi-tech and innovation.

At the 2016 Oslo Innovation week held in October, Anya Eldan, the general manager of early stage innovation at the Israel Innovation Authority (under the Economy Ministry), was a keynote speaker on a panel with Norway’s Innovation Chief Anita Krohn Traaseth.

“Where do you get the secret sauce? Because there are a lot of small countries out there who would really like to know?” the Oslo Innovation Week moderator asked Eldan. “The biggest success factor is kind of strange, but we are really not afraid to fail,” Eldan said to a receptive crowd that was evidently more interested in emulating Israel’s innovation techniques than discussing politics.

“We feel like a popular kid in the class,” said Dan Poraz, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Norway, to group of journalists in October at the embassy. “At the most important event in Norway for the second year in a row we have very prominent Israeli speakers as keynote speakers,” he added.

According to the Norwegian Ambassador to Israel, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, the current Norwegian government is looking to have “a much wider horizon” when it comes to Israel. “With the current government, we are trying to build up trade and bilateral relationships. We are active in the peace process, we do work together with Israel on that, but we are also trying have a much wider horizon,” he said during a meeting with a delegation of journalists in his Ramat Aviv office in October.

The 2013 Norwegian elections led to the election of a center-right government led by a Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party and the right-wing Progress Party. The alliance dethroned the left-leaning Labour coalition.

“The Conservative Party is more business minded and they said they would be more ‘balanced’ when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Marte Heian-Engdal, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. But Heian-Engdal downplayed the extent of the Conservative Party’s political shift on Israel, saying that besides a business friendly attitude, the government has not made a clear political shift on Israel.

“The friends of Israel have been strong and are growing in number in Norway, and I do think when we see the stalled peace process we understand that we cannot reduce everything to a discussion of the peace process,” said Hanssen-Bauerf, who has been involved in decades of Norwegian peace efforts.

In a separate statement provided to The Jerusalem Post, Ambassador Hanssen-Bauer said the Norwegian Embassy has prioritized research, development and scientific cooperation with Israel and “cooperation in the energy sector, as well as collaboration on technology and innovation.”

As part of the Norwegian Embassy’s effort to build deeper ties with Israel and the Israeli public, the embassy sponsored a delegation of Israeli media to Oslo, including this Post reporter. The purpose of the visit included attending the 2016 Oslo Innovation week, discussing Israeli-Norwegian relations, and learning about Norway’s oil and tech industries as well as its $880 billion sovereign wealth fund (the largest in the world).

The embassy is hoping to expose Israelis to a side of Norway that is not framed around salmon and the Oslo Peace Accords, but a wider picture of Norway based on trade, cooperation and mutual interests.

Director general at the Norwegian MFA Petter Ølberg said that the Norwegian government issued clear directives that every consulate and embassy, in Israel and otherwise, “should dedicate itself much more to commercial activities and helping Norwegian business.”

Asked if this meant a shift away from political activities for Norwegian embassies, Ølberg said that it would force staff to “re-prioritize.” “The ministry has been extremely clear that working with business is on the top of the list. So if they don’t, it is not going to be conducive to their careers,” he said.

Anita Krohn Traaseth, CEO of Innovation Norway, a government-funded development body, believes that Israel can provide a useful model as the Norwegian economy transitions away from oil and natural gas. Norway is Europe’s largest holder of natural gas and crude oil; energy exports form around 20% of the country’s GDP.

“The Norwegian economy is in a big transformation, since the price of oil was halved,” Krohn Taaseth said, “How has Israel made it to become one of the centers in the world where people are looking at for innovation? At the same time, Israel is in a very specific political situation. That makes us curious,” she remarked.

Israel-Norway cooperation and business ties are still nascent, except for the salmon trade – Norwegian salmon comprises 80% of salmon imports in Israel, and Norwegian fish comprises 30% of all fish imports, according to the Norwegian Embassy in Israel. The fatty orange Norwegian fish can been seen in Tel Aviv’s trendy sushi restaurants and fish markets.

The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund also holds around $2.4b. in Israeli investments, including a 2.6% stake in Israel’s Discount Bank.

However, in the hi-tech sector there are recent rumblings of collaboration. A delegation of around 20 Norwegian entrepreneurs and companies participated at the DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival in September, and a cooperation agreement was signed by the Oslo International Hub and Impact Hub Tel Aviv. The agreement aims to promote cooperation, investment and knowledge exchange between start-ups in the two countries.

Norwegian-Israeli business and political ties have also seen some disputes. In 2014 Norway’s sovereign wealth fund blacklisted the Israeli real estate developer Africa Israel Investments and its construction subsidiary Danya Cerbus for construction over the Green Line in east Jerusalem. At the time, this put the Israeli company on the same list of companies from North Korea, Iran and Syria, which were ineligible for investment.

Within the Norwegian Labour party many individual members support boycotting Israel as part of the larger Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The party holds the largest allocations of seats (31%) in the Norwegian parliament. However, it is not part of the governing coalition. Norway is also chair of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) and donates around $73 million annually to Palestinian development. As AHLC chair, Norway has been criticized by right-wing Israelis for supporting “anti-Israel” NGOs.

Poraz said that working in the small and understaffed embassy meant that most of the embassy’s time is spent on dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Trade commerce and economic issues are something that we are trying to work on as hard as we can,” Poraz said. “It is not always easy because as you can imagine most of the things that we are required to deal with here are about political issues.”

Ambassador Hanssen-Bauer said Norwegians felt an affinity for Israel during Israel’s founding years. “Israel was so close to us with the same values built up by the Labour party [in Israel] and the Labour party in Norway,” remarked Hanssen-Bauer.

However, Hanssen-Bauer added that the initial kinship diminished as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took a larger role in relations between the two countries. “A lot of Norwegians took the Palestinian side in the conflict, and mainly looked to Israel for the way it treated the Palestinians, which in my view was a fact that we lost something along the way.” Hanssen-Bauer added that he believed Norwegians lost an understanding of Israel.

On the streets of Oslo thousands of miles from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Norwegians still feel connected to what plays out in the Holy Land. In front of the parliament an older lady is braving the cold temperatures to hand out pamphlets for Grandmothers for Peace. “I think most Norwegians see Israel as oppressing the Palestinians. We see what is going on over there as unjust,” she said.

The base of Norwegians who are adamantly pro-Israel and spearheading the movement for improved relations are conservative Christian voters, Heian-Engdal said. “The [right-wing] Progress Party is what stands out the clearest from the bunch, they think Israel is too often singled out,” she said.

At the Norway-Israel Chamber of Commerce in Olso the interweaving of business and religion is apparent in some members. Willy David Ekre, president of the Norway-Israel Chamber of Commerce, said he discovered his passion for Israel on a 1978 trip to the country when he “found his Jewish roots.”

Magnar Hellesøy, CEO of Hauge Shipping and Oil, is hoping to promote his business in Israel. As a pastor, Hellesøy seeks business ties with Israel partly due to religious convictions, telling the Post that he believes ties with Israel are a moral imperative.

However, Heian-Engdal added that conservative Norwegian-Christian voters are not influential in Norwegian politics and moreover may experience a generational shift on Israel. “The youth will not have an unquestionable love of Israel and they will not be automatically accepting Israel because they are Christians. They will be more ready to look at issues in closer detail,” she remarked.

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