Norway's incoming conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg leaves the Royal Castle after presenting her new coalition government to Norway's King Harald V on Oct. 16 in Oslo. (Agence France-Presse)
HELSINKI — Debate over whether to ease weapon export restrictions to Israel is threatening a potential foreign policy split for Norway’s new Conservative-Center coalition, which took office on Oct. 16.
The right-wing Høyre Party heads the administration, but the Progress Party (FrP), the conservative Høyre’s junior coalition partner, is pushing to remove Norway’s munitions/weapons ban on Israel as part of a broader policy to support the arms export industry.
Høyre has yet to confirm if it is willing to contemplate lifting the ban, having won the recent parliamentary elections on a trade and foreign policy framework that includes fresh measures to expand Norway’s arms exports, but which made no mention of easing arms export restrictions on Israel.
However, the emergence of the FrP as a government partner could influence policy change after a period when relations between Norway and Israel cooled under Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s socialist administration, which held office from 2005 to this year.
One influential vehicle for this change is the FrP-led Friends Of Israel In Parliament (FOIIP) group, which is lobbying robustly to reopen military trade with Israel, said Jørund Rytman, the FrP’s commerce spokesman and a member of the Norwegian parliament’s Standing Committee on Business and Industry. Rytman also leads the FOIIP.
This group is supported by Siv Jensen, the FrP’s leader and finance minister.
“Essentially, I do not see any major fundamental differences between exporting to Israel and the United States. This issue will probably become a government agenda item in the coming months,” Rytman said.
The rebuilding of defense materials trade should take place as Norway develops “warmer and more understanding” relations with Israel, Rytman said. “The first hurdle to tackle will be to reform the arms export control law, which prohibits the sale of military equipment to Israel.”
However, Foreign Minister Børge Brende said the government will not rush to decide sensitive issues such as lifting the arms boycott on Israel, a ban that was introduced by a Labor government in 2002.
“We do not envisage any immediate reason to change the present weapons export policy regarding Israel,” Brende said.
The FrP’s demand is largely supported by the equally pro-Israel Christian Democrats, so the issue will not easily vanish from the political policy agenda, said Karl Piel, a Brussels-based political analyst.
“There are also some staunch supporters of Israel within Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Høyre Party. Whether Solberg will back the ban removal sought by the more pro-Israel elements in the FrP will depend on whether or not it decides to hold fast with the two-nation solution that Stoltenberg’s Labor administration fostered, and which has been central to Norway’s foreign policy for quite some time,” Piel said.
The FrP might dilute its posture on removing the arms ban in the interest of compromise as the new government seeks to develop policies in more urgent areas, such as economic planning and banking regulation, Piel said.
“This may become a cart-and-horse situation,” Piel said. “Solberg may decide that the best course of action is first to rebuild better relations with Israel before the possibility of removing the arms trade ban is even considered.”
New Defense Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide has signaled she supports the program, started under the previous government, to rebuild the country’s defense capabilities. To this end, the Conservative-Center government can be expected to maintain high levels of defense spending while supporting initiatives to more deeply involve Norway’s defense sector in existing and new military equipment programs, Piel said.
“One area where this new administration may differ in its intensity is in how it will work with the defense industry to bolster exports,” Piel said. “Given that the Conservatives have been traditionally close to industry generally, and also the defense sector, one can expect specific initiatives that encourage growth in niche defense equipment areas by important local producers such as Kongsberg and Nammo.”
Søreide was a strong advocate of involving native industries in all core areas of Norway’s defense modernization program during her tenure as leader of both the Defense and Foreign Relations committees in Parliament from 2009 to 2013.
She is expected to oversee continued high defense spending. The 2014 budget, agreed to by the outgoing socialist government, raised spending to US $7.3 billion in 2014, up from $7.1 billion in 2013.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Defense put the value of Norwegian military-related material and services exports in 2012 at $780 million. Of this amount, equipment and systems accounted for $661 million of exports, sharply up from the 2011 figure of $440 million.
The largest product export areas in 2012 included missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, torpedoes, mines, rockets and armored vehicle protective technologies. More than 80 percent of exports were sold to European Union countries and the US.
A government committee is examining the need for measures to tighten export controls on military equipment and is expected to present its proposals in 2014. These are likely to include stricter requirements for documentation identifying end users.