Illustration Dec. 7, 2010 (Amos Biderman)
Illustration Photo by Amos Biderman
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The flying squadron of international firefighters that came to extinguish the flames in the Carmel region has poured cold water on the "they are delegitimizing us" campaign. Even Norway - which, heaven help us, keeps an open channel to Hamas and heads the list of critics of Israel's government - offered a pair of helicopters.

It is hard to find a diplomat who epitomizes the difference between support for Israel and delegitimization of the occupation better than Svein Sevje, Norway's ambassador to Israel.

In 1968, a few months after completing high school, Sevje answered an advertisement for young Norwegians to volunteer on kibbutzim and reported to Mishmar Ha'emek. He kept in touch with his new friends and returned to the kibbutz three years later to study Hebrew at an ulpan (intensive language course).

Sevje says he didn't need the generous aid in battling the flames to reject the claim that European countries, among them Norway, have been casting doubt on Israel's legitimacy. What is illegitimate, the ambassador stressed in an interview at his spacious home in Herzliya, is the occupation and the settlements, which violate international law and United Nations resolutions.

He also noted that Oslo's criticism of the occupation is more moderate than that voiced by quite a few Israelis. Norway has never spoken in post-Zionist terms, he said with a smile.

The ambassador is vehemently opposed to any form of boycott of Israel. Nonetheless, it doesn't surprise him that Norwegians are refraining from buying Israeli products after learning that Israel has circumvented its commitment to indicate the origin of goods produced in the settlements. Nor would Sevje be surprised if stagnation in the diplomatic process and the global economic crisis increase domestic public pressure on the Palestinian Authority's donor countries, including his own, to transfer responsibility for funding essential services in the occupied territories back to Israel (to date, Norway has donated more than $2 billion for this purpose).

Even though he has only recently entered the ambassador's office in Tel Aviv, Sevje swims easily in the swamp of the Israeli-Arab conflict. His CV is studded with postings in the Middle East. In the mid-1990s, he served as the first Norwegian representative to the Palestinian Authority and also as acting ambassador to Israel. He informed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and was at PA headquarters in Ramallah when Mahmoud Abbas told Yasser Arafat that Rabin had been assassinated and heard the Palestinian leader prophesy, "Now all red lines will be crossed."

Before returning to the region as ambassador to Syria and Lebanon (he was in Beirut when Israeli air force planes bombed the city), Sevje served as head of the Middle East section of the Foreign Ministry in Oslo. His next position, before being sent to Israel, was special envoy for the peace process.

Sevje is familiar with the average Israeli's attitude toward the brand name "Oslo," which, to the veteran diplomat's great regret, has fallen victim to abuse by opponents of compromise and hesitant leaders. His challenge is to restore a bit of warmth to Israeli society's chilly attitude toward the land of the fjords. As part of its effort to nurture relations between the two countries, the embassy recently hosted a performance of a noted duo of jazz musicians from Norway.

This effort is why he considers it important to explain Norway's decision to maintain relations with Hamas. "Since 1993, Hamas has been a political force, whose ideology is contrary to our belief in a peace-seeking secular state," Sevje said. "However, if you ignore it, it isn't going to disappear."

In his conversations with Hamas leaders, he formed the impression that there have been missed opportunities to reach an agreement with the movement on de facto recognition of Israel in the 1967 borders. One of them was during the brief period of the Palestinian unity government.

He wonders if anyone in Israel still believes the blockade of Gaza is achieving its aim. He himself has no doubt the siege is not harming Hamas' status.

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah sends the Hamas government in Gaza a large cut of the money it receives from donor countries, but Sevje's government does not transfer a single Norwegian krone to Hamas. The tunnel economy supplements the organization's income.

Though Israel has not asked Norway to use its connections to help negotiate a deal for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Oslo has discussed Shalit with Hamas as a humanitarian issue. Sevje said confidently that the considerable amount of time that has elapsed hasn't changed the price Hamas is demanding for the soldier's release one iota.

Israel's silence

Based on his Syrian experience, Sevje finds it hard to believe that Syria (via Hamas) would watch tranquilly from the sidelines if a permanent-status agreement resulted in Israel leaving the West Bank and East Jerusalem but continuing to hold the Golan Heights. However, Sevje's impression is that President Bashar Assad is committed to the principles of the Arab peace initiative (recognition and normalization in return for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just and agreed upon solution to the refugee problem on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194).

He was in Beirut on that day in March 2002 when the Arab League adopted the initiative, and he wonders why to this day, no Israeli government has even bothered to discuss this revolutionary proposal.

"If Israel doesn't believe the Syrians," he said, "why isn't it putting them to the test and exposing the bluff?"

Before we parted, I asked Sevje if the Israel he lives in today, which hates foreigners and Arabs, arouses nostalgia for the Israel he knew 40 years ago.

"My friends at the kibbutz are very worried about this trend," he replied diplomatically. "If Israel wants to be a normal country with its face toward the West, it has to respect universal values."