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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

Great Mediators in History #1. Johan Jørgen Holst

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

- Historian, politician, mediator, negotiator: born Oslo 29 November 1937. Died Sunnaas, Oslo 13 January 1994, aged 56.

- Director of Research, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs State Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Norway 1976-79;

- Junior minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1979-81;

- Minister of Defence 1986-89, 1990-93;

- Foreign Minister 1993-94;

In 1993 Holst helped guide the secret talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization When he died in 1994 he had been Norway's Foreign Minister for less than 10 months.

Many Norwegians were surprised when Mr. Holst, a former Defense Minister, was named Foreign Minister in April 1993. He was not known for his political skills, and some expressed doubts that he would measure up to his predecessor, Thorvald Stoltenberg, who had resigned to become the United Nations mediator for the Balkans.

But his success with the Israeli-P.L.O. negotiations won him wide respect. The Norwegian Labor Party newspaper, Arbeiderbladet, said in a commentary in November 1993: "We asked last summer if Stoltenberg's shoes might be too big for Holst. The question now is whether the shoes of Thorvald might be too small."

Mr. Holst and a tightly knit negotiating team that included his wife, Marianne Heiberg, a Middle East researcher, guided the secret talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, which began in January 1993 and continued through August.

The negotiators met in remote farmhouses in Norway, at hotels, and in Mr. Holst's home in Oslo, where the Foreign Minister's 4-year-old son, Edvard, helped break the ice by playing with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Mr. Holst said the key to the success of the talks was establishing a relaxed, friendly tone, a challenge for a man who acknowledged being shy.

"We tried to design a format which would bring the conflict down to human scale and create a human atmosphere," he said in a speech at Columbia University.

Despite his success as an international negotiator, Mr. Holst was known at home for political gaffes. In a debate on refugee policy, he once annoyed many Norwegians by declaring, "Norwegians are not very hospitable!"

Mr. Holst studied political science at Columbia and at the University of Oslo, where he earned his degree in 1965. He had won a research fellowship to Harvard University in 1961 and in 1970 was a visiting professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Holst said of himself: “I am not a pacifist, nor do I have much personal experience as a participant in public protest movements. In fact, I have often been on the "other side" of such movements, not because I disagreed with the objectives, but because I had a different view of the available alternatives, of the consequences of alternative policies, and of the relationship between ends and means. Throughout my adult life I have been concerned with and engaged in exploring or affecting the complex issues of peace and war. There are no easy solutions. There are probably no finite solutions, but there is a constant imperative to understand and shape the parameters of the human condition. My perspective is that of a European; my experience is that of a Scandinavian; my values are those of a social democrat. Before I consider some of the policy issues involved in civilian- based defence, I must establish a context within which to make the assessment.”

"The moment he entered the peace process, it was in the center of his life until his last breath," Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said today of Mr. Holst's role in helping to bring the two sides to an agreement. "The entire nation of Israel bows its head to the memory of this man.”

Yasir Arafat, the P.L.O. leader, called Mr. Holst "a great peacemaker who engraved the name of Norway in the book of world peace." Mr. Arafat promised to name a street and square in Jericho after Mr. Holst, the P.L.O. news agency said.

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