n intractable dispute resolved by sending negotiators to a remote setting and forcing them to work out their differences and realize their common humanity—this is one of the great fantasies of diplomacy. And, evidently, for playwrights as well. The idea was given a thorough airing in 1988 with the New York production of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, a fictionalized version of the 1982 SALT nuclear talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. In it, two diplomats representing the two nations bond during their strolls through the Swiss woods and produce an agreement that, though it was not ratified by their governments, suggested that peace between implacable enemies was possible as long as honest relationships could be arrived at.
Now there is J.T. Rogers’s acclaimed play Oslo, which had a run at Lincoln Center last summer and is due to reopen on Broadway in the spring. Based on the memoirs of Norwegian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen, the play is a docudrama about the secret talks that led to the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on the White House Lawn in September 1993. Though it is flattering to its main protagonists—Larsen and his wife, the diplomat Mona Juul, who both regularly break the fourth wall to lecture the audience about context and chronology—it generally sticks to well-known facts about the talks that were initiated without the knowledge of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly after his Labor Party took office in 1992.
According to Larsen, the idea for the effort came from a visit to Gaza he and his wife made during the First Intifada in the late 1980s; while there, they witnessed a confrontation between an Israeli soldier and a rock-throwing Palestinian. They believed both of the participants in the struggle didn’t want to be there and desired peace. The Larsens became convinced that all that was needed to break the impasse was for the two peoples fighting over one land to realize there was a viable and logical diplomatic solution available to them. But that option could work only if both parties set aside their fears and preconceptions about the other side and were willing to make reasonable compromises. Larsen also believed that throwing negotiators together on their own could lead to the building of personal relationships that would overcome the seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
As it happens, his plan worked. Or at least it did insofar as getting the two sides to sign an agreement. After initial talks between tough-as-nails Palestinian operatives and more pliable Israeli academics operating off the books at the behest of Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, the true breakthrough happened when the Israelis violated their country’s legal prohibition against negotiating with the terror group and sent a government representative—Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’s acolyte Uri Savir—to Norway. As Larsen hoped, Savir bonded with PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie, aka Abu Ala, during the tense discussions and their own walks around the secluded Norwegian castle where the talks were held.
As the play shows, the Palestinians continued to push for and get concessions almost until the last moment the deal was formally signed (with American sponsorship). But most Israelis cheered because the Palestinians promised both recognition for the state of Israel and an end to terrorism and the conflict.
The Oslo accords demonstrated that the willingness of the stronger side in a negotiation to treat the weaker side as equal and to make concessions opposed by the majority of its population (and the head of government when he ran for office) made a historic pact achievable.
Though the depiction of the signing is followed by a brief tableau in which the subsequent careers of the participants are related, the moment when Rabin, Yasir Arafat, and Bill Clinton posed on the White House Lawn is the denouement of the play. While a brilliant cast at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, headed by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle (who may well be the most underrated actress of her generation) as Larsen and his wife, and crisp direction by Bartlett Sher made as strong a dramatic argument as possible for this dry material, this cutoff is why the play fails as history.
While Larsen was correct that under the right circumstances and with helpful nudges from a neutral party, a deal could be hashed out, a piece of paper is not the same thing as actually ending a conflict.
We know that the intentions of Beilin and his boss Peres, whose portrayal in the play as a pompous yet determined leader willing to cast caution to the winds in pursuit of his goal rings true, were sincere. They truly believed that giving the Palestinians what they said they wanted would create a “New Middle East.”
But 23 years later, we also know from both their actions and subsequent revelations, Qurie’s boss Yasir Arafat had no such vision in mind. Arafat spoke openly in Arabic at the time of his aim to use Oslo as part of a plan to continue the war against Israel on more advantageous terms and not to forge a final peace. He never stopped funding and fomenting terror, and used his newfound control of Palestinian schools and media to inculcate new generations in the ideology of hatred for Israel and the Jews.
Indeed, as soon as Israeli troops began their retreat and the PLO assumed control over most of the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, both Arafat’s Fatah Party and his Hamas rivals began a bloody campaign of terrorism. At the time of Rabin’s assassination in 1995, polls showed a majority of Israelis had thrown off their euphoria and now opposed the pact because they already understood that Larsen’s big idea had led to more bloodshed with little hope of the peace they had been promised.
The events of the next few years would completely explode the Oslo concept and destroy the political fortunes of its Israeli advocates. Though Israeli governments, including the one led by Oslo opponent Benjamin Netanyahu, continued to grant the Palestinians more control over territory, Arafat’s goals never changed. In 2000, at a summit at Camp David, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat statehood and control over almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem (terms that Rabin had said were unimaginable even after Oslo), the Palestinians said no and soon launched another even more destructive terror campaign. That pattern would be repeated during the next 16 years by Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, as the toll of lives lost due to post-Oslo terrorism enabled by the agreement ran into the thousands on both sides.
Seen in that light, the playwright’s applause for Larsen, Juul, and their helpers seems historically illiterate. Like a play about Napoleon’s Hundred Days that ended with his triumphant re-entry to Paris in 1815 but left out the subsequent Battle of Waterloo, the theatrical effort to crown Larsen as a successful hero of peace falls flat even if a line is tagged on at the end in which Juul wonders aloud whether what they did was for the best.
Imagine what we might think of the efforts of the diplomats Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky—and Blessing’s celebration of them—today if the U.S.–Soviet nuclear standoff had not become a relic of history. Imagine, instead, that Moscow had seen the “walk in the woods” as a sign of U.S. weakness and weariness and had launched provocations so extreme they had led not to peace but to nuclear war. That is the logic of Oslo.
oes a Broadway that gets this history so terribly wrong matter?
Probably not to the millions of Israelis that have more important things to worry about as they live with the aftermath of Larsen’s handiwork. But it is more important than they might think.
The overwhelming majority of Israelis view the Oslo process as an experiment that failed badly. They still favor, as does their supposedly right-wing prime minister, a theoretical two-state solution. But they understand that until a sea change in Palestinian political culture allows recognition of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, further concessions aren’t so much counterproductive as they are suicidal. That’s why the parties of the Israeli left that sponsored Oslo are now a weak minority.
But for many Americans—especially liberal Jews who constitute the prime audience for Oslo—the history that followed Larsen’s triumph has been shoved down the memory hole and was ignored while it was happening. The same can be said of the Obama administration as well as the European governments that continue to provide financial support for a corrupt, terrorist-supporting PA while blaming Israel for the failure of the Oslo process and essentially using the United States Security Council to criminalize the Jewish presence in Jerusalem.
It is not an accident that the “Oslo Chronology” provided in the glossy program supplement at Lincoln Center covers the period after the play’s action by only acknowledging the one instance of Israeli terror during the period (the 1994 massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron) and the assassination of Rabin. The program says nothing about the innumerable instances of Palestinian terror during the period or about Arafat and Abbas’s subsequent refusal of Israeli offers of statehood and peace.
Those omissions are astonishingly bad history, but they are an accurate reflection of the mindset of those in the United States from Foggy Bottom to the faculty lounge who continue to blame Israel for Palestinian intransigence. This false narrative is the root of the myth that the Israelis and Netanyahu threw away the peace Rabin had signed. That lie is also at the heart of the growing support for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israel in the United States, and it undergirds support for anti-Zionist groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace that have overtaken J Street and Peace Now as the home for left-wing critics of the Jewish state. Those groups are gaining influence in the Democratic Party.
Far from being irrelevant to current events, Larsen’s blunders and the unwillingness of the West to draw conclusions from what happened after the accords go to the heart of the contemporary vituperation against Israel and Zionism. Rather than giving the Israelis credit for empowering their foes, Larsen, with his clever attempt to jump-start history, joins much of the world in continuing to wrongly blame Israel for not wanting the peace Oslo seemed to promise.
It turns out that for all of his common humanity, the Palestinian rock thrower Larsen saw in Gaza still has a way of looking at the conflict that is different from that of the Israeli he is opposing. Thanks to Larsen and Oslo, he is now armed with rockets aimed at Israeli cities and poised to use tunnels to kidnap and murder Jews. That terrorist who is determined to expel the Jews from the land rather than share it with them still doesn’t have the same goal as his stereotypical Israeli antagonist. Oslo and all that followed it proved repeatedly which side was prepared for coexistence and which rejected it. That is the true tragedy of Oslo and the Middle East conflict that the playwright and his cheering audience have missed.