With two nations at odds for more than half of a century, different major power players brought all types of peace attempts to the table, but to no avail, with two significant exceptions. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979 stands as a lonely, if successful peace attempt, while the 1993 Oslo Accords represent the second, partially successful and incomplete effort. As a result, Palestinians and Israelis formally recognized each other’s existence, and committed themselves to working together to resolve the conflict in a non-violent manner. Israel recognized the existence of the Palestinian people and its right to self-determination, conceding partial sovereignty over a large portion of the occupied territories. In return, the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) recognized the existence of the state of Israel, and promised to amend its charter to remove the articles which negate the existence of Israel or the call for its destruction. The Oslo Accords also resulted in the Palestine Authority’s assumption of administrative and limited security control of the Palestinian territories, although responsibility for external security remains with Israel.
After devoting so much of his life to the struggle to liberate his homeland from Israeli occupation, the late Yasser Arafat finally returned for the first time in 27 years, setting foot in Gaza on July 1, 1994. Criticisms aside for his acceptance of the peace agreement, this marked a historic point in Palestinian history, one that could not have been achieved without the Oslo Accords.
Those Accords inspired hundreds of books and articles which fall under the genre of Middle East Studies, and, more specifically, under the Arab (or Palestine)-Israeli conflict. Arafat’s critics and supporters alike voiced numerous opinions on the Oslo Accords. Recently, the theater has added to the subject with a historical drama called “Oslo.”
The question remains as to what the theater can add to the discussion that hasn’t already been covered by the hundreds of books and articles written about Oslo. Perhaps this question should be rephrased, however, since “Oslo” does not try to offer political analysis or an alternative view of the Accords. While entertainment, inherent in the dramatic process, cannot be ruled out, the process itself offers the closest approximation of an answer: How did a country like Norway, far less influential and powerful than the U.S. and other major European countries, come close to accomplishing what the powerful could not? More to the point, how did the founders of the Accords, Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul, neither a match for the Kissingers and the James Bakers of the world, manage to accomplish what they did? Clearly, the Oslo process broke through decades of entrenched hostility, marked by the unwillingness of either side to even talk with the other face-to-face. In the end, the Accords culminated in major agreements, which, though subsequently stalled, did not completely cease to exist. In addition, the application of an approach borrowed from academic literature into a real conflict situation remains an important highlight of this extraordinary venture. The way the play deftly deals with these factors makes the case for the intellectual and artistic merit of “Oslo,” which Vanity Fair describes as “historically fascinating” and a “compelling drama.” The magazine goes on to state that the play “makes a thriller out of diplomacy.”
The play condenses nine months’ worth of negotiations into a three hour, three-act production, exploring two conflict resolution approaches: gradualism and totalism. Gradualism -- alternatively known as a piecemeal approach or step-by-step diplomacy -- begins by addressing individual differences in opinion, so that the process of successfully overcoming their differences one issue at a time ensures an increased likelihood that the two parties will learn to work together productively. Each discovery of common ground helps them build a form of trust. This approach stands in opposition to the concept of totalism, which seeks to resolve all issues at once and in their totality, generally making compromise and tradeoffs difficult.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, “Oslo” tackles the political and diplomatic event while focusing on the human story. The founders of the peace talks, Norwegian husband and wife Terje Rod-Larsen (played by Jefferson Mays) and Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) -- both real people who played prominent roles in the Oslo Accords -- approach interpersonal dynamics with admirable sensibility. When Terje arranges the first meeting between the Israelis and PLO, tensions prove as high as expected. However, he takes care not to intervene, instead leaving the two parties to vent their grievances. This creates a proximity which allows them to discover that they have more in common than they would like to admit.
From there, the stage masterfully crafts an environment for peace talks. Throughout the process, the characters develop to a point where they tell each other jokes, disarming any angry outbursts and creating an atmosphere conducive to negotiation. Particularly, the careful lighting on stage successfully immerses the audience further into the story, reflecting the overall moods in each scene.
“Oslo” has its share of tense and anxious moments. At a certain point, the Palestinians and Israelis turn on Terje, questioning his true motives for bringing them together. In other scenes, with tensions high and negotiations difficult, Terje interjects a human touch into state politics, reminding both sides why they have agreed to attend the Accords, contrasting images of war and children being killed with the possibility of progress and change.
Prior to the making of “Oslo,” Rogers interviewed Mr. Larsen and Ms. Juul, taking care in his writing process to allocate each group involved in the negotiations a share of talking with enough time to properly express themselves. Above all, the actors and actresses give “Oslo” its special charm. “Flawlessly cast,” according to Marilyn Stasio’s review of the production for Variety, the play vividly fleshes out the interactions between the three parties of the Oslo Accords.
J.T. Rogers has written several other political dramas, notably “The Overwhelming” (2004), which focused on the Rwandan Genocide, and “Blood and Gifts” (2011), which explored the struggle for control of Afghanistan during the 1980s, from American, Soviet, British, Pakistani, and secular Afghan points of view. In “Oslo”, Rogers conveys a “you-are-there” type of environment similar to Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” (1998) and “Democracy” (2003). The playwright has created a very interactive experience, allowing the audience into the heads of those partaking in the Accords, so that they feel the tensions and happiness experienced by the characters as events unfold.
This article is part of Al Jadid’s Cultural Roundup, scheduled to appear in Vol. 21, No. 73, 2017.