Editor’s Notes: ‘We were trying to tie Arafat to the process’

By David Horovitz December 10, 2004

A decade later, the chairman of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize committee reveals the thinking behind the award

Geir Lundestad, who has served since 1990 as the secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, was adamant that I was wasting my time. Most of them are very old, and they won’t talk to you, he assured me down the telephone from Oslo. ‘And if you’re trying to phone them to get them to say they regret the decision,’ he went on, quite unp-rompted, ‘I don’t think they’re going to do that.’

Well Prof. Lundestad was quite wrong on the first count, and absolutely right on the second. Wrong to suggest that members of the committee that awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize would avoid my calls. But right in his assessment that they would purport to have no regrets about their choice of recipients.

A long, bitter decade has passed, only very recently supplanted, with Yasser Arafat’s departure, by the first, faint signs of renewed optimism. A long, bitter decade since Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin posed for the photographers, Nobel medals and diplomas in hand, at Oslo City Hall on December 10, 1994 – years in which, bombing by bombing, a firm majority of Israelis who backed the Oslo partnership was battered into a firmer Israeli consensus that Arafat was no partner.

That decade has played out very differently in the city that gave the process its name, the country whose diplomats played so central a brokering role and whose foreign minister so obligingly provided the tranquil forums for the negotiations.

Neither Lundestad (who as secretary told me that he spoke on behalf of the judging committee), nor Francis Sejersted, the semi-retired history professor at Oslo University who chaired the committee and presented the awards, or his colleagues (who proved eminently capable of speaking for themselves), hold Arafat and Palestinian terrorism primarily culpable for the failure of Oslo. Indeed, while Lundestad was smoothly diplomatic, declaring that ‘The only regret is that the opponents of compromise on both sides were so strong that they stopped all future movement towards peace,’ Sejersted and fellow committee members Hanna Kvanmo, Odvar Nordli and Gunnar Stalsett indicated that if there was a first crippling blow, then it was struck by Israel, or more accurately by the Israeli gunman serving a life term at Ramle’s Ayalon Prison for murder.

Horovitz: Do you believe that the assassination of Rabin doomed the process?
Sejersted: Yes, I think that was fatal, [or at least] the first step toward the great setback. [Rabin] had a key role in the process… He had the basis in his past and his authority. Was it the fatal step? I shouldn’t say. But it was very serious… and if he had lived it is possible that things would have turned out differently.

Horovitz: Many Israelis, and what seems like an increasing number of other people, would argue that it was Yasser Arafat and his failure to renounce terrorism that doomed the process.
Sejersted: I don’t know so much about the process [as it has unfolded in the decade since the prize was awarded]. I haven’t really been into it. From my position it seems as if both sides are to blame. Who is to blame the most? I shouldn’t say.

Horovitz: What is it that you blame each side for?
Sejersted: Turning back into violence. There can be a discussion about who really started off the road back into violence and violent actions… It was the opposite of what was happening in 1994.

KVANMO, THE deputy committee chairman, told me that Peres had ‘disappointed’ her in the last decade by supporting Ariel Sharon, but she disputed the accuracy of extensive quotes attributed to her in many news reports at the height of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, in which she said she wished the prize to Peres could be revoked.

She also told me that she was disappointed by the corruption in Arafat’s regime, but did believe he had genuinely renounced terrorism, only being prevented from confronting it effectively by Israeli ‘harassment’ of his security forces.

Nordli, a former Norwegian prime minister, ascribed the collapse of the Oslo process to the murder of Rabin and the consequently changed political situation in Israel. Looking back, I asked him, do you consider Arafat to have been a worthy winner? ‘Yes I do,’ he said.

Asked why he thought Oslo had failed, Stalsett said that the murder of Rabin changed history ‘in a brutal way.’ In 1994 the committee had made ‘the right choice,’ he said, and he made no criticisms of Arafat. A Lutheran bishop who joined the committee in place of Kaare Kristiansen (who resigned in protest at the award, and of whom more later), Stalsett, much like Kvanmo, disputed news agency reports in 2002 that quoted him as regretting Peres’s support of the ‘warring’ Ariel Sharon and charging Peres with violating the ‘intention and spirit’ of the prize.

I failed to reach the final judge, Sissel Ronbeck. She was quoted in those now much-disputed 2002 reports as holding Israel mainly responsible for the violence and urging Peres to return to a policy of peace and dialogue.

Chairman Sejersted, as far as I can ascertain, had not spoken out in the 10 years since he presented the awards. (At the ceremony, he noted: ‘It has been said that the Nobel Committee ought to have waited. But to say that is to disregard what has already been achieved as a result of the Oslo Accords… The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded both in recognition of efforts which have been made, and to encourage still further efforts… Concession must be followed by concession, or the process will come to a halt.’)

Quite forthcoming in our conversation, he explained the rationale behind the choice of the trio as follows: ‘At that time, they had come some distance towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Middle East. Of course they hadn’t found a final solution. We were aware of that. We were aware of the possibilities of setbacks. But the reason we did it was that we thought they had taken some very real, important steps towards a solution and shown great courage in doing so and getting out of the vicious cycle of violence.

‘I still feel,’ he went on, ‘that both sides… really tried hard. It was a risky project. A risky project as confirmed later by the murder of Rabin… The present situation: It’s very much to regret that there has been an intifada and that the conflict has been greater… The peaceful solution still seems to have a long way to go.’

Pushed a little harder, he dug a little deeper.

Horovitz: Do you think, looking back, that awarding the prize did good or harm? Incidentally, I’ve heard it argued that the Palestinians were resentful from the start that two Israelis were given the prize and only one Palestinian.
Sejersted: I’ve also heard about that talk of resentment… In general, awarding a prize works to the better. But there can be cases which have the opposite effect. In this case, I’m a little uncertain. It reverberates to a very large degree. It could have been one of the reasons for the assassination of Rabin, for example.

Horovitz: Most Israelis, I suspect, might argue that it did harm because it encouraged Arafat in the belief that he could fool the world into thinking that he had genuinely renounced terrorism and was genuinely seeking compromise.
Sejersted: I can’t look into the thoughts of Arafat, but we believed at the time that he was sincere in saying that he’d chosen peaceful means. And we actually considered that awarding him the prize was a way of tying him to the process.’

Arafat spoke movingly at the ceremony of his certainty that ‘we shall discover ourselves in peace more than we have with war and confrontation.’ He termed the Palestinian commitment to peace ‘a historic strategic option.’ And he stressed the recipients’ sense of obligation to ‘humanity and a universal moral duty.’

‘Is it right [to say] that he lied all the way?’ Sejersted asked rhetorically down the phone. ‘I doubt it still. But people can, under pressure of the circumstances, change and change again. I don’t think he lied at the time, although I do know that the Israelis have changed their mind as to what he really stood for.’

KAARE KRISTIANSEN certainly has no regrets. The former head of Norway’s Christian People’s Party, Kristiansen, who had served on the Peace Prize committee since 1992, resoundingly announced his resignation in furious protest on the day Sejersted publicized the chosen recipients.

Now 84, Kristiansen says he is ‘more convinced than ever that I did the right thing.’ He’s also convinced that Sejersted and his colleagues are being disingenuous, or defensive, about their feelings today.

‘The majority of the committee had more liberal and more lenient attitudes towards Yasser Arafat,’ he recalls. ‘They must have been very disappointed that his policies went in the opposite direction. After the prize was awarded, he supported terrorism and encouraged his own organization in terrorism in a way that the majority of the committee members thought impossible at that time. They will not admit it,’ he goes on, ‘but in their hearts they must understand that the reason for the award is nullified by Arafat himself.’

Have they told him that, I asked Kristiansen? Has he met with them since 1994?

Yes, he said, he’s met with some of them. And no, ‘None of them has phoned me up [to say they were wrong] nor would I expect them to.’ But the ‘real intent at the time,’ he said, in a more dramatic echo of what Sejersted said about wanting to tie Arafat to the process, was ‘to rescue the Oslo agreement.’

Kristiansen was at all but the last of the committee’s meetings. And it was already clear to them all, he says, that Oslo was on the point of collapse.

‘Arafat had broken all the promises he had made… And the award was, I think, a panic measure in order to make him alter his attitudes – an attempt to rescue the Oslo agreement which, of course, also failed.’

When you read what [Oslo intermediary Terje] Roed-Larsen has been saying in the last few weeks about Arafat, Kristiansen went on, ‘that Arafat’s ideal in politics was Saddam Hussein, and when you see what the Socialists in Israel say about Arafat, I can only think that they [the committee members] think that Arafat shouldn’t have had the prize. I have to be careful about what I say, but I think that the chairman of the committee (Sejersted), I think in his heart he supported me, but he was the chairman…’

I ASKED Sejersted how the committee worked technically, how the original long list of nominees (113 that year, Lundestad said) was whittled down.

The nominations are finalized and given to the committee at the end of January, the professor said. The members of the committee can add their own nominations. ‘Then the secretariat of the Nobel Institute makes a selection… and we were left with 40 or 50 [names].’

Norwegian and international experts then provide ever more detailed reports on the nominees as the short list grows shorter. (Roed-Larsen, Sejersted said, was not one of the experts involved, ‘although of course we heard him publicly.’)

Committee members didn’t travel to the region to do first-hand research in 1994, and generally don’t, he said. ‘I was always careful not to travel widely. Word would get out [about who we were considering for the prize].’

Kristiansen, meanwhile, said that his choice for the award were the 1996 recipients, Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, honored, the Nobel institute said, ‘for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.’

He added that he doesn’t think any of the committee members had ever been to the region. ‘But all Norwegian politicians think they are experts on the Middle East,’ he said, chuckling richly. (In fact, Sejersted noted in his 1994 presentation speech that he had first visited the Middle East 10 years earlier.)

I asked Kristiansen whether Nobel rules had blocked his return to the committee, which is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, in the years after he resigned, or whether he had been invited back.

‘There’s no law against being invited back,’ he laughed, ‘but, no, I haven’t been. Still, as a former member of the committee, I am invited to the ceremony, so I’ll be there again [today].’

While Kristiansen indicated that he left the committee on terms as good as could have been expected with Sejersted, there doesn’t seem to be much love lost between him and Lundestad.

The Nobel committee secretary asserted to me that ‘it was always understood’ Kristiansen would resign, that he objected to Arafat and to the Israeli pair winning, and that he was ‘the prime spokesman of the Likud in Norway.’

Kristiansen confirmed that he was never going to swallow the award for Arafat and opposed Rabin and Peres too, but contested the ‘prime spokesman of the Likud’ appellation. There is no formal friends of the Likud group in Norway, he said, and while he ‘supported Israel especially when Netanyahu was PM,’ he did so as well ‘when Peres was in power… I defend Israel in its positions without taking into consideration which government is in power.’ Indeed, he said, it was he who created the pro-Israel lobby group in the Norwegian parliament.

He added, incidentally, that the Nobel committee’s original intention had not been to include Peres among the recipients. At first, ‘there were other proposals – that the prize not go to politicians, but go to the technical people… Actually I don’t know what made them choose also Peres,’ he mused, ‘but the committee members from the [Norwegian] Labor Party were very eager that Peres, in their thinking, was the main person on the Oslo accord. During the process it was clear that Rabin and Arafat were the first choice. Then something happened to make it important that Peres also get it.’

Ten years on, Kristiansen also argued that the Nobel Institute broke its own rules in 1994 in pressing ahead with the award over his objections and ultimate resignation.

Lundestad told me that Kristiansen’s departure was not unprecedented in the 103-year Nobel history, and cited two previous instances of peace prizes that prompted resignations: the 1935 award to anti-Nazi journalist Carl von Ossietzky, and the 1973 award for the US-Vietnam cease-fire to secretary of state Henry Kissinger and chief negotiator Le Duc Ho (which Le Duc Ho declined).

Kristiansen retorted that those other resignations took place only after the prize was announced, while he told Sejersted that he was resigning, uniquely, before the decision was made public. ‘They violated the Nobel rules’ in going ahead, Kristiansen asserted. ‘Nobel clearly laid down a rule saying that the decision must be unanimous.’

I could find no confirmation of this rule in the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s statutes, nor in Alfred Nobel’s own 1895 will, which stated the prize conditions, and will be interested if anyone can cite me chapter and verse.

Lundestad was adamant that Kristiansen is mistaken. Committee members ‘can object during the deliberations and then sit quietly if they disagree and not talk about it,’ Lundestad said. Or, if they oppose the conclusion and want to speak out, ‘they have to leave.’ But ‘no member of the committee,’ the secretary said, ‘has a veto.’

© The Jerusalem Post