A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)
Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for?
That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords.
The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia.
Instead, the play examines the individuals who played the pivotal early roles in the process — and have since faded from public view (if they were ever there to begin with).
On the Israeli side, it’s Uri Savir, Yossi Beilin, Joel Singer, Ron Pundak and Yair Hirshfeld. On the Palestinian side, then-PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (who went on to become PA Prime Minister) and Hassan Afour. And, critically, on the Norwegian side, figures such as Terje Rød-Larsen, his wife Mona Juul, and Johan Jorgen Holst. The playwright notes that he has taken historical liberties with the characters — and their names — but that everything in the play is based on his factual research.
The play is mainly told through the perspective of Rød-Larsen (played by Jefferson Mays), a Norwegian think tanker with dreams of shaping the events of history. He is the conduit through which Peres’ deputy, Beilin, launches talks — very indirectly, as it turns out. The Palestinian negotiators are initially enraged to show up in Norway and find that their negotiating partners are two professors from the University of Haifa (Daniel Oreskes is a standout in the role of Hirshfeld. He might be a bit of a Jewish and Israeli stereotype — but stereotypes are, of course, born of reality.)
As a theatrical event, the play is satisfying. The first act gets off to a slow start, but after that, business picks up. (Be warned, the show has three acts, and runs just under three hours). The performances were a bit broad for my taste, but the acting is generally strong, the production fluid and interesting, and the staging magisterial.
The play takes an even hand to both parties. The Israelis criticize the Palestinians for their repeated insistence on wiping Israel off the map, and for inciting violence. The Palestinians condemn the Israelis for expelling Palestinians during the 1948 and 1967 wars, and for the harshness of what they call “the occupation.” (The Israeli team counters that the Palestinians supported and participated in the wars that resulted in their losing their homes).
Oslo is also somewhat depressing, given recent circumstances.
In the play, the Palestinians push for the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza, believing this will be the beginning of a true and functioning Palestinian state. Today, of course, we know what happened when Israel did eventually withdraw from Gaza.
And all of the arguments made in the early 1990s leading up to Oslo can still be made today: Palestinians value violence more than they value the lives of their children; Israel is stuck in the untenable situation of having to police the Palestinian territories, wanting to withdraw, but knowing it would endanger Israeli security, etc.
At one point, I asked myself: is this all hopeless? Are we just repeating a cycle that will never end? That is a question the play also asks.
But when you really think about it, the situation is not as bad as it was before Oslo. Prior to 1993, the PLO and the Israelis did not communicate at all, even through back channels. One of the most stirring moments in the play occurs at the beginning, when PLO Finance Minister Qurie is nervous to meet his Israeli counterparts. “I have never seen an Israeli,” he says.
By the end of the play, the Israelis and Palestinians have become great friends. (The play tells us in an epilogue that Savir and Qurie keep in personal contact to this very day). Even if this is an exaggeration, it is true that it’s harder to blindly hate “enemies” when they are real human beings; that it’s harder to blindly hate the idea of an Israeli or Palestinian than the one standing in front of you or talking to you.
Oslo shows that even for all its problems and failings, diplomacy is important. And more importantly, diplomacy works. Diplomacy cannot bring peace alone, but it’s hard to imagine a true peace without it.
Much has been written on these pages about the failures of Oslo. And amid endless reports of Palestinians educating their children to hate Israelis (often at the behest of Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas himself) it’s hard to imagine how the next generation of Palestinians are going to want to make peace with the Israelis.
But because of Oslo, there will be a starting point. And, because of Oslo, there has been cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians for the past 20 years. True, the cooperation may not be as robust as we want — and Oslo may not have been a true game changer in the region — but when and if peace does come to the region, Oslo will be seen as the first step.
In its touching epilogue, the play recounts all of the terrible violence that has occurred since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. But it also asks us to recognize the glimmer of hope that the Accords represented at the time — and still represent today. And that is worth remembering — and seeing — for yourself.
If you see Oslo, you will be filled with hope — however small it may be.