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September 3, 2018 9:01 am

New Movie Takes a Look Back at the Tumultuous Oslo Accords

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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The signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington, DC, Sept. 13, 1993. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Is there any reason to be optimistic that there can be a true peace deal for the Israelis and Palestinians?

“I don’t think there is another alternative, neither for the Palestinians, nor for us,” Shimon Peres says in his last interview, shown in the new film The Oslo Diaries. “The only alternative is an ongoing war. But contrary to what people think, in war there are no victories, only victims. No war is ever finished, unless it’s being replaced by peace.”

Was Peres, who died two years ago, correct? Hold on to that question.

The documentary, which is playing now in New York at Cinema Village, will be screened at the Marlene Meyersen JCC in Manhattan on September 6 and will air on HBO. It is worth seeing. It is not overly graphic, but a few scenes are tough to watch. We see Israeli corpses after a suicide bombing, and we see a Palestinian child who has been killed. We see Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sing a song of peace, and then people crying after he is assassinated by a right-wing Israeli gunman.

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Directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan do a good job of using archival footage to show the fateful tensions of the difficult time period of the 1990s, most notably when Rabin argued with members of the Knesset who said that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat couldn’t be trusted. They should be praised for showing the suffering and trepidations of both the Israelis and Palestinians. But there is a need to balance a utopian idealism with the reality of the facts on the ground. The directors succeed at times, but fail at others.

The Oslo Diaries tells the story of the Oslo negotiators, who first met in secret — and arguably illegally. At first, Israeli professors Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld dealt with a Palestinian negotiating team led by Abu Ala.

“If you want peace, you should convince yourself to trust, and later on by experience you can [see if] they’re serious or not,” Abu Ala says, when asked about how he could trust the Israelis.

Chief Israeli negotiator Uri Savir and military lawyer Joel Singer were later included, and were eventually joined by Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath and IDF veteran Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Shaath initially said that he could not negotiate with Shahak, because Shahak led a mission that killed some of his close friends in Beirut. Of course, he later changed his mind.

The filmmakers choose to have actors play the roles of the negotiators at times, and also have some of the real participants speak in interviews. This is a mistake. Seeing actors walk in the snow or sit around a table doesn’t add anything. Neither do weak narrators, who read from cliché-ridden diaries.

There are a few humorous moments. Peres laughs as he says that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Arafat a son of a b****. We hear from Shaath that a Clinton representative asked if Arafat could show up in a suit instead of a military uniform, and refrain from hugging or kissing him. Arafat would not budge on the first request, but did on the second one.

A major problem here is that Benjamin Netanyahu is shown almost as a villain, with his narrow 1996 victory over Peres (50.5% to 49.5%) seemingly slamming the door on a final status agreement, which was supposed to happen five years after the Oslo Accords. But being against a specific plan for peace is not the same as being against peace. Only one Hamas official speaks for a few seconds, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is barely mentioned.

We do hear Arafat answer a question of whether Israel will allow Jerusalem (at least part of it) to be the capital of a Palestinian state. He answers that “when there is a will, there is a way.”

We also hear a journalist saying that Israel was “tired of chasing stone-throwing children through refugee camps.” There should be some counter to this, but none is offered.

So what of Peres, the legendary statesman and politician, who says that there is no alternative to peace and war has no victors?

Just because we want something to happen, that doesn’t mean that it will. In the pages of history, the Oslo Accords may go down as a stepping stone to an eventual peace deal, or as something that sounded nice but never led to the desired results. This film has some powerful moments, but ultimately suffers because it doesn’t sustain a sense of urgency and true balance.

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