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(photo credit: AP)
Norway intends to maintain contact with Hamas at the envoy level, but its ministers do not plan to meet with the Gaza government's representatives, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store has told The Jerusalem Post.
This policy had been widely misunderstood during his visit to Israel, included in the media, which mistakenly reported that Norway had cut off all ties with Hamas, after that group's violent split with Fatah in June.
Israeli officials, who had emerged from Store's meeting with President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday believing that Norway would stop its contacts with Hamas, expressed dissatisfaction that the contact will continue, though not at the ministerial level.
One diplomatic source said Store's clarification that some Norwegian contact with Hamas would still take place was "disappointing."
Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist group bent on its destruction. Since June 2006 it has asked the international community not to normalize relations with Hamas until that group recognizes Israel, ceases terrorist activities and agrees to abide by past agreements.
"We think any recognition of Hamas is counterproductive," the diplomatic official said, and that it "pulls the rug out from under the legitimate Palestinian Authority government."
But Store, speaking with the Post at a Jerusalem hotel late Monday night, defended his country's position.
"Norway for 30 years has maintained a policy of keeping a broad network of contacts in this region" and kept up a dialogue with states or groups even when it disagrees with their policies, he said.
Store did not meet with Hamas officials on his two-day trip to Israel. But, he said, "If my [envoys] come across representatives from different groups [including Hamas], they are still allowed to make contact. I think it is wrong not to maintain contact to get the full picture of the situation."
Norway holds to this principle even though it has reason to be upset with Hamas, Store said. Norway was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords that defined Israeli-Palestinian relations in the 1990s.
"Hamas has spent every day since Oslo, trying to destroy Oslo," Store said. "We deeply regret that, but it didn't mean that we stopped talking with them at the envoys level."
"My position on the charter of Hamas is very clear," he said. "It is very far away from the key principles that I associate with a modern political movement that tries to bring progress to its people."
Store said Norway changed its envoy only policy in March when the PA unity government was formed. Even then, he said, Norway allowed its ministers to meet with Hamas as part of its recognition of the PA unity government. He said it did so out of deference to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Store said Norway respects Abbas, adding, "What we have tried to do during these two years is to support the legitimate president of the Palestinian people."
Norway was one of the first European states to recognize the PA unity government when it was formed in March, a move that was harshly criticized by Israel. At that time, Deputy Prime Minister Raymond Johansen met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who was the PA's prime minister. During those months, Norwegian ministers were allowed to meet with representatives from the PA unity government.
"We were ready to talk to that government after the endorsement of President Abu Mazen [Abbas]," Store said, "because we saw that as his last attempt to apply political means to bring about Palestinian unity."
This was not a policy change with regard to Hamas, he said, adding, "What we did is to say we can talk to this government, which is accepted by the president." Unfortunately, he added, "We know how that ended, in June in a violent outbreak in Gaza" and the collapse of the national unity government. Since then, Norway has returned to its former policy of meeting with Hamas only at the envoy level, he said.
Today, Store said, Norway deals with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Norway has had past relations with both men and considers them to be the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, he said.