As capital of one of the world's richest countries and home of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo is accustomed to high-ranking international visitors. But with President Clinton's arrival here today on the first U.S. presidential visit in Norway's history, the host city has been overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the traveling White House.
When Clinton agreed to attend the multinational gathering this week honoring slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin--and, perhaps, to jump-start the Middle East peace process as well--the delighted Norwegians informed the United States that they would happily cover all the costs for the president and a traveling party of up to 15 people.
"They said that was nice, but actually they expected the entourage to be more than 700," said Mette S. Owre of Norway's Foreign Ministry. "When he travels, it is a large-scale operation."
The U.S. delegation--with Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright leading a vast accumulation of staff, security, and press people--has taken every room in Oslo's biggest hotel and spilled over into a few others. Oslo's city government ran out of American flags and had to place an emergency order for five dozen more with a flag factory in Bergen. The local media are full of stories about police wagons lining downtown streets and security precautions that will essentially close off the city center for the two days that Clinton is here.
The security is not just for the president, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other world leaders will join Rabin's widow, Leah, for a commemorative dinner and memorial ceremony marking the fourth anniversary of Rabin's assassination.
Norway has scheduled the commemoration because this chilly city at the tip of the icy gray Oslofjord feels a special connection to the palmy desert states of the Holy Land.
Rabin was the Israeli leader who signed the Oslo accord, the groundbreaking 1993 agreement that set the stage for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Rabin, Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, now a member of Barak's cabinet, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for that achievement.
Barak's election earlier this year breathed new life into the stalled peace process, and the hope is that this week's gathering will build momentum toward a solution of some of the still-unresolved issues. Those issues include a final accord on national borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
(Clinton said on his arrival that the peace talks were "at the point where the really difficult decisions lie ahead."
"Coming back to Oslo where the Oslo accords were born, coming here to honor the memory of Yitzhak Rabin who gave his life to the peace process, it's a good thing to do," he told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.
"We are hopeful that we will make some progress. Probably the less we say about it in public, the more likely we are to get something done. But I'm hopeful."
Clinton's 36 hours here have been carefully divided between the U.S.-Norway aspect of the trip and the gathering of the Middle East leaders. Today is the designated day for Clinton's state visit to Norway. That visit officially lasts from the early morning arrival of Air Force One to 2:02 p.m., when the president is scheduled to leave the Royal Palace after lunch with King Harald, grandson of the man who was elected king when Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905.
At 2:03 p.m., the president formally begins his participation in the Rabin memorial. This will take him back to the palace tonight night for a commemorative dinner, and then to the memorial ceremony at Oslo's city hall on Tuesday morning.