OSLO, Norway – Norway's (search) capital could not have been further removed from the chaos and bloodshed of the Middle East. Yet it was as a result of top-secret meetings here that two veteran warriors decided it was time to talk peace.
With Yasser Arafat's (search) passing on Thursday, the two main protagonists of what came to be known as "The Spirit of Oslo" are now dead. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995.
The 1993 accord for which the two leaders won the Nobel Peace Prize is in tatters, too.
But Oslo — both as a symbol and a neutral ground for talks — continues to loom large for Israelis and the Palestinians, some say.
"Norway's ... role in the peace process is more important than ever before," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said last month during one of his frequent visits to Oslo.
In August 1993, Roed-Larsen and other Norwegian mediators stunned the world by helping broker a secret peace accord in which the Palestinians formally recognized Israel's right to exist and Israel agreed to establish self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, territories it had ruled since 1967.
In her 2001 book "Norwegians. Who needs Norwegians?" researcher Hilde Henriksen Waage said it was Arafat who proposed the idea of a secret Norwegian peace channel.
Paradoxically, it was the facts that Norway was one of Israel's strongest supporters, had been cool to the PLO and had close ties to the United States that made Arafat calculate that Oslo would be a good peace broker, according to Waage.
"Arafat didn't need a friend of the PLO. He needed a friend of Israel that also had close ties to the United States," wrote Waage, of the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute.
Norwegian academic Terje Roed-Larsen — one of the architects of the Oslo Agreement and now the top UN envoy for the Middle East — captured the enigma of Arafat in comments Thursday.
"He was like a surrealistic painting, full of contradictions, full of mystery, full of inconstancies. He was complex, deep, superficial, rational, irrational, cold, warm. He may be the most fascinating person I have even met, and without comparison the most fascinating leader I have ever met," Roed-Larsen said.
The Oslo agreement was marred by setbacks and bloodshed from the day it was formally signed in September 1993 on the White House lawn with President Bill Clinton. But the next year, in 1994, the Norway-based awards committee in charge of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize sought to nurture the process by jointly awarding the coveted prize to Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
"The best way in which to honor the memory of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin is to carry through the efforts for a lasting peace," said Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in a statement Thursday about Arafat's death.
It was in Oslo that Arafat, Rabin and Peres accepted the Nobel Prize.
"Oslo shall remain the bright name that accompanies the process of peace, the peace of the brave," Arafat said during his Nobel lecture. "As I recall the difficult peace journey we have traveled, we have only covered a short distance."
For nearly a decade after that, Arafat and other key Middle East players would continue making the trek to Norway seeking "the spirit of Oslo."
The hopes generated by the peace accord collapsed into Israeli-Palestinian violence that began in 2000 and has claimed some 4,000 lives, three-quarters of them Palestinian. That has discredited the Oslo accord in the eyes of many on both sides — although with the passing of Arafat, who was shunned by Israel, some see new hopes for a peaceful resolution.
Norway has gained a reputation as a global peacemaker, mediating between the Sri Lanka government and Tamil rebels, as well as in the Philippines, Sudan, and elsewhere — but "Oslo" may forever be associated, for better or worse, with the Middle East accord and its aftermath.
The 1994 Nobel Peace Prize was one of the most controversial ever announced by the five-member Norwegian committee. Kaare Kristiansen, a Christian Democrat, angrily quit the committee minutes after it announced the prize, saying he could not be party to an award that included Arafat, a man Kristiansen considered a terrorist.
Despite the setbacks and the anger, Arafat and the others kept returning to Oslo.
The most high profile visit was in 1999, at a summit in Oslo led by Clinton, who met then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat and pushed them to reach a final agreement. But it was not to be.