Theater and Politics in Oslo
written by J. T. Rogers, directed by Bartlett Sher
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City
April 13 through July 2, 2017
In November 1995, the Dayton Agreement was signed, ending the war in Bosnia. This major achievement of American diplomacy was made possible by effective geopolitics and the diplomatic skills of America’s chief negotiator, the late Richard Holbrooke. It put a stop not only to armed conflict, but to civilian massacres and ethnic cleansing. Nonetheless, there is no award-winning Broadway show called Dayton, nor is there likely to be one. There is, however, Oslo. J. T. Rogers’s play dramatizes the negotiations that led to the far-less successful first Oslo Accord, which was signed by Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and the Palestinian leader Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) in Norway, and sealed shortly thereafter in the famous Clinton-facilitated handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.
If this discrepancy is less than surprising, it is still worth noting. Americans have been obsessed with attempts to make what President Trump likes to call “the ultimate deal” of Israeli–Arab peace for at least half a century. One can catch a hint of this obsession in the headline of the New York Times rave review of the new Lincoln Center production of Rogers’s play, which runs through the summer: “‘Oslo’ Fills a Large Canvas in a Thrilling Production.” The play, critic Ben Brantley wrote, “has now become the colossus it was always meant to be.” It certainly is long (three hours), and Rogers is a skillful dramatist, but whether he paints on a large enough canvas is a question to which I shall return.
Before offering my own, rather different view of Oslo, I should mention my limited role in the actual Oslo process. When the talks began, I was Rabin’s peace negotiator with Syria, a separate—and to some extent—competing track of Arab–Israeli peace negotiations. By August of 1993, when the Israeli and Palestinian teams had come to agreement on a declaration of principles and an interim five-year agreement, I was also Israel’s ambassador to the United States. I joined the Israeli and Norwegian foreign ministers, Shimon Peres and Johan Holst, at Point Mugu Naval Air Station near Santa Barbara, to brief Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his team and get the Clinton administration’s endorsement. In the coming months, I participated in the transformation of this agreement into what would become “the Oslo process,” which would last throughout the 1990s.
The most important elements of the agreement were mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, the construction of an autonomous Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, and Yasser Arafat’s return from his exile in Tunis to lead the Palestinian Authority. The issue of Palestinian statehood, along with other thorny issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian claim for a right of return, was deferred until final status negotiations. It was a spectacular and controversial breakthrough—seemingly a rare successful case of “track two diplomacy,” while more public negotiations between Israel and a delegation of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians in Washington, D.C. were going nowhere.
The compromises made by the two sides in Oslo were condemned by critics in their respective camps. Radical Palestinians saw the agreement as a capitulation to the continued existence of a Jewish state. The Israeli right wing objected to the recognition of Arafat and the PLO, and, even more, to bringing them to Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian statehood was not part of the agreement, and not a single Israeli settlement was to be removed within the five-year interim period, but for the settler movement Oslo meant the end of their dream to add the West Bank to Israel proper.
The Oslo talks began with the initiative of Terje Rød-Larsen, the head of a Norwegian think tank, who secretly brought together two Israeli academics, Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and Dr. Ron Pundak, with senior members of the PLO. Hirschfeld and Pundak were working for Yossi Beilin, Shimon Peres’s chief aide, who had become deputy foreign minister with the formation of Rabin’s government in the summer of 1992. Beilin took his time before briefing Peres on the new diplomatic channel, and Peres took his time before he updated Rabin. Although one would not know it from the play, the political rivalry between Rabin and Peres was, in fact, an important dimension of Israeli diplomacy at the time. They were the Siamese twins of Israeli politics, now uncomfortably joined at the hip as prime minister and foreign minister.
To everyone’s surprise, Rabin authorized the track two negotiations in Oslo. In time, Hirschfeld and Pundak were joined and then marginalized by Uri Savir, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Joel Singer, an expert on international law and a seasoned peace negotiator. But Peres and Beilin were the real forces behind the Israeli team, as Rabin uneasily monitored and guided the negotiations from a distance while remaining ambivalent. In fact, he hoped that the next big breakthrough in Arab–Israeli relations would happen elsewhere, in a deal with Syria, where the dispute had become territorial, not existential, and in which the other party was, at the time, a strong, coherent regime. However, President Hafez al-Assad insisted on an Israeli commitment to a full withdrawal from the Golan as the very first step, which had brought negotiations to a standstill.
J.T. Rogers, who has said that he writes plays about characters “who struggle with and against . . . world events,” took upon himself the task of dramatizing how the negotiators at Oslo succeeded under these circumstances (to the extent that they did). The result is good theater. Rogers’s play could (or, rather, should) have been shortened, but theatregoers are treated to a suspenseful story, good acting, and—despite the essential talkiness of the action—well-orchestrated movement on the stage. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Play and won two; it will open at the Royal National Theatre in London this fall, after it ends its run at the Lincoln Center.
But a play that is not only based on real and relatively recent events of an ongoing political process, but derives much of its dramatic power from the sense that it is depicting them truly, cannot be judged in purely theatrical terms. This would be true even if it were not the case that for theatregoers (and the viewers of the film that will reportedly be produced by the makers of La La Land) Rogers’s version will be the only version of these events that they know. And yet, Rogers’s play makes for remarkably sloppy history, in matters both large and small. Thus, Yair Hirschfeld was a professor of Middle Eastern history not economics; Uri Savir was indeed summoned by Shimon Peres from New York but in 1984, not a few weeks before the negotiations but nine years earlier; and so on. More troubling is the fact that many of the characters are mere caricatures of their real-life counterparts: On stage, Hirschfeld is a buffoon, Palestinian negotiator Hassan Asfour can only utter Marxist slogans, and Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir, and Joel Singer bear little resemblance to the complex, fascinating, even problematic, real-life people upon whom they are based. Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) does come off as an impressive figure, but this is, at least in part, due to the power of Anthony Azizi’s performance. As for the Norwegians, Minister of Foreign Affairs Johan Holst, who passed away in 1994, does not come off well, but Holst’s friends Terje Rød-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (both of whom clearly had a major impact on J. T. Rogers’s understanding of events) emphatically do, and are given a healthy dose of credit for the agreement.
But more important than these failures of characterization and historical detail is Rogers’s underlying assumption that success of Oslo was a product of Rød-Larsen’s philosophy of conflict resolution. As Ben Brantley wrote in his New York Times review, “Their [Rød-Larsen and Juul’s] approach in bringing together two seemingly irreconcilable sides was rooted in the theory of gradualism.” This approach involves decontextualizing political conflict and personalizing it. As Rød-Larsen himself has explained: “My model is rooted not in the organizational, but in the personal. With each point of contention addressed separately by specific individuals, as themselves, not as the process they represent.” This may be a good working theory for theatre about characters “who struggle with and against . . . world events,” indeed Rogers’s acceptance speech at the Tony’s suggested as much. But it is not a good way to understand actual world events. In reality, the Oslo Accords were the product of historic decisions made by political leaders who were not present in the room: Arafat, Rabin, Peres, and Beilin.
Arafat was in a weak position. Time, a decisive dimension of every conflict, was no longer on his side. Not only had the United States won the Cold War, but the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc had just vanished, and Israel was benefitting from a massive wave of immigration from Russia. Moreover, he had bet on the wrong horse in Saddam Hussein. It was time to make a deal, and Oslo enabled him to maneuver effectively without crossing any of his red lines—at least until final status negotiations.
Rabin, in turn, thought that a diplomatic breakthrough was necessary, and he accepted the Oslo option for lack of a better one. His original strategy with regard to the Palestinians had been to seek an autonomy agreement through negotiations with local leaders, but he soon discovered that the negotiations were just shadow-boxing. Ostensibly, the Palestinian negotiators in Washington, D.C. did not represent the PLO, but, in fact, they received their daily marching orders by fax and telephone from Tunis. So rather than deal with the PLO indirectly, Rabin reluctantly authorized Peres and Beilin to pursue direct negotiations. On August 3, 1993, two weeks before the signing in Oslo, Rabin made a final effort to make headway on the Syrian track when he told Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he was hypothetically willing to withdraw from the Golan, given certain conditions. When he realized two days later that, instead of holding that card for an opportune moment, Christopher had instantly played it with Assad, and, moreover, that the American diplomatic delegation was leaving the region for its summer vacation, he decided that he had no option but “to go to Oslo.” (For the American delegation’s perspective on this incident, see Dennis Ross’s review of my biography of Yitzhak Rabin in these pages, “A Life with Consequences,” Spring 2017.)
The Oslo Accords produced a great deal of hope and a great deal of controversy. Rabin’s assassination, two years after the famous handshake, on November 4, 1995, was a grave blow to the process. Rogers inflicts a heavy and gratuitous injustice on Rabin by presenting him at the opening of the play, in the words of Rød-Larsen, as “a sputtering clown,” an Israeli politician who under the influence of whiskey mistook him for a Frenchman. But with all his complexity, it was Rabin who made Oslo acceptable to the Israeli public. His Israeli assassin understood that by killing Rabin he could derail, if not fully destroy, the Oslo process.
This is a long and complex story, but several elements of the Oslo Accords are still relevant and important today. The mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians is still valid and has enabled Arab states to deal with Israel. And the Palestinian Authority, weak, corrupt, and abused though it is, still manages the life of most Palestinians in the West Bank. Their many criticisms notwithstanding, not many Israeli right wingers would like to return to Nablus and Jenin and administer them. One can only hope that an Israeli–Palestinian negotiation will be revived. If and when this happens, the original Oslo framework will have to be significantly modified in order to accommodate the realities created on both sides during the past 24 years. In the meantime, Oslo tells an interesting story well—for those who don’t know the story.