The Foreign Ministry backed away on Tuesday from critical comments Ambassador to Norway Miryam Shomrat made about the nation's royal family for failing to express sympathy over an attack on the country's main synagogue. The comments angered many Norwegians, including members of the tiny Jewish community.
At least one gunman opened fire on the synagogue in downtown Oslo before dawn on September 17, hitting it with at least a dozen bullets. No one was wounded.
Norwegian police arrested four suspects, and it later emerged that they had been planning to attack the US and Israeli embassies in Oslo, and to kidnap and behead Shomrat.
In an interview broadcast on state television network NRK late Monday, Shomrat criticized Norway's enormously popular figurehead monarch, King Harald V, and his family because they had not issued a statement expressing sympathy with the Jewish community.
"A gesture from the royal household last Friday under the Jewish New Year's celebration would have been appropriate," she said. "It would especially have been a sign of solidarity from the royal family if they had come to the synagogue after it was fired on."
In the interview, Shomrat said the royal family was praised in the Oslo synagogue every Saturday morning, adding that it shouldn't be "a one-way" affair.
She also sharply criticized popular Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder, who wrote a newspaper column a few weeks ago in which he said, "We no longer recognize the State of Israel."
Shomrat's comments drew immediate and sharp reaction in Norway, where the royal family is seldom criticized.
"I think this is a very unsuitable comment from an ambassador from another country in Norway," Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said. He said the government had expressed sympathy, adding that the justice minister had visited the synagogue the day after the attack.
Former prime minister Kaare Willoch, now seen as a senior statesman in Norway, said, "I think this is completely unreasonable, especially considering how strongly our royal family stresses the right of all people to respect and protection."
Shomrat took Willoch to task in her interview, saying he spread half-truths during the war in Lebanon.
The Foreign Ministry tried to defuse the incident by issuing a statement saying that Shomrat had no intention of insulting the royal family, and that her words had been misinterpreted.
At the same time, the statement said, it was impossible to ignore the continued, unbalanced criticism in Norway toward Israel and the accumulation of a number of incidents, including the publication of Gaarder's "anti-Semitic article, the shots fired at the synagogue and the plot to kill the ambassador."
"We support the ambassador in her desire to give expression to our concerns at the situation, and are certain that the Norwegian authorities will take all the necessary steps," the statement said.
Nevertheless, criticism of Shomrat was also heard in Jerusalem, with one government official saying her remarks would be similar to Israel's ambassador to Britain criticizing the queen of England for not commenting on an anti-Semitic incident there.
"This would just not be done," the official said, adding that in Norway the king is more popular than the queen is in England.
The official characterized Shomrat's comments as "impolitic and aggressive." He also said it was presumptuous of her to have spoken on behalf of the local Jewish community.
A Norwegian student studying in Israel, who did not want to be identified, said the royal family was perceived as "untouchables," adding that Shomrat made a mistake just by talking about them, let alone criticizing them.
"It's not their [the royal family] business to respond to events," the student said. "There are a number of republicans in Norway, but in general the population sees the royal family as venerated symbols - you shouldn't start shooting from the hip when talking about them."
The criticism also angered members of Norway's Jewish community, which numbers between 1,300 and 2,000 people.
"We were all very surprised that the ambassador did something like that," Anne Sender, president of Norway's Jewish community, told The Jerusalem Postby phone from Oslo. "In Norway, the king and the royal family never comment on public or political issues, so no one would have expected them to comment on this, either."
Sender said many Norwegians likely thought the ambassador was speaking in the name of the Jewish community, something that was not the case.
"It appeared to many that she was speaking on our behalf," she said. "But she wasn't. She is the Israeli ambassador and we are Norwegian citizens, and it was necessary for us to make clear that she was not speaking for us."
Sender said Shomrat had called her to express regret over the incident.
"She apologized to me and said that it was not her intention to speak in the name of the community," she said. "I believe her and I accepted her apology... I am convinced that she did not mean to hurt or insult anyone."
Labor-Meimad MK Michael Melchior, who is officially Norway's chief rabbi, said there was growing anti-Semitism in Norway, and that over the last several months a number of red lines had been crossed.
In the past few months, Oslo has been the scene of a number of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incidents, including an attack on the synagogue last month, when an unknown perpetrator smashed glass windows and scrawled graffiti on the site after defecating near the entrance.
Melchior said the shooting incident represented "a very, very serious deterioration, and a difficult trauma for a community fighting to keep up its institutions and traditions."
He said that while, in general, the reaction of Norwegian society has "been to surround the community with support and sympathy after the shootings," it still needed to "look inward and see how things deteriorated to this point, how words which have been said over the last month have turned into words of hatred and anti-Semitism, and now turned into actions of this terrible nature."
Amir Mizroch and AP contributed to this report.