BOOK REVIEW / Double vision of peace: 'Gaza First: The Secret Norway Channel to Peace between Israel and the PLO' - Jane Corbin: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Johan Joergen Holst, died earlier this month, he was hailed as the architect of the Israel-PLO accord so spectacularly hijacked by President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn last September. His name will have a place in the history books.

But what of Jerje Larsen and Mona Juul, the husband-and-wife team who conceived and nurtured, at great personal cost, what came to be known as the Oslo Channel? As Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin put their names to peace, the Norwegian pair were seated in a back corner, barely able to see the signatories. It was only afterwards, at a reception from which Juul was excluded, that Clinton met Larsen for the first time and told him: 'You did a great job, Mr Larsen.'

Jane Corbin, the award-winning Panorama reporter who was the only journalist let into the secret of the Norwegian connection, traces events from the first tentative contact between Palestinians and Israelis in a mansion south of Oslo to the bugging, by Mossad, of Yasser Arafat's point man less than two months after the White House ceremony. She leaves little doubt that without Larsen's idealism and determination there might never have been an agreement.

Larsen's involvement with the Palestinians began in the late Eighties, when Fathi Arafat, head of the Palestine Red Crescent, convinced him to undertake a socio- economic survey of the occupied territories. The Norwegian, then in his early forties, was founder-director of the Institute for Applied Social Sciences, or Fafo. His wife Mona, a diplomat 12 years his junior, was a Middle East specialist posted to Cairo. On a visit to Gaza in June 1990, the couple found themselves in the thick of one of the battles of the intifada. They saw fear and despair on both sides, and decided to use the Fafo survey as a forum for reconciling enemies.

From the first, the Oslo Channel was based not only on shared aspirations but on personal chemistry - between Larsen and Abu Ala, the mercurial PLO financier who led the Palestinian team, and Larsen and Uri Savir, the urbane director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who was his counterpart. As American peace efforts floundered, the Oslo Channel was kept so secret that suspicious Norwegian immigration officials twice intercepted the Palestinian negotiators. These were extraordinary talks, shaped by Larsen's conviction that intimacy would lead to understanding. He dispensed with protocol - introducing Savir to Abu Ala with the words: 'Meet your public enemy number one]' - and advocated long walks in the woods when all else failed.

The wider political world, when it intrudes in this narrative, is a dispiriting place. 'I am a democrat,' Arafat tells Larsen at their first meeting. 'I always let anyone speak, whatever they want to say. But when it comes to implementing things I am a dictator.' That is one of the rocks on which the agreement is foundering today; that, and Arafat's excessive enthusiasm on the White House lawn. It might have been easier had he recognised the agreement for what it is: a defeat for Palestinians, but a defeat that contains the seeds of hope.