“Did you enjoy Oslo?” London’s West End applauds a failed peace process

As we were leaving the theatre an email dropped into my inbox inviting me to give some feedback. “Did you enjoy Oslo?” was the subject line. Hmm, tricky question. The acting was good. The dialogue was sharp and witty. But the process it depicted turned out to be a political nightmare and a national catastrophe for the Palestinian people. That didn’t stop the audience in London’s West End applauding the show with enthusiasm.

Men in suits

JT Rogers’ play, about the secret talks arranged by Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen, succeeded in making men in suits shouting and swearing at each other an entertaining three hours and at times even suspenseful, despite knowing the outcome.

What it also did was show how most of the world still views the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians: two implacable foes, full of mutual suspicion, endlessly fighting over the same territory. Lock them together in a room for long enough and surely they will eventually come to their senses. ‘Oslo’, both the play and the ‘Peace Process’ it depicts, explains why, twenty-five year’s on, there is still no peace and still no justice. Instead, Oslo created a myth of symmetry, an equality of suffering, that continues to hold sway, stunting public understanding and political progress.

Rabin, Clinton and Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing in Washington in 1993.
Rabin, Clinton and Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing in Washington in 1993.

25th anniversary

At the end of 2018 we’ll mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn and that famously reticent handshake offered by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Yasser Arafat. I remember watching it live on TV and thinking this was it, the conflict was over, peace had come and Israel could become a ‘normal’ fully democratic country and the Palestinians would get their State. End of story. My ambition to one day become the BBC’s Jerusalem correspondent suddenly looked like a far less interesting posting.

In some ways it was indeed an historic breakthrough. Israel recognised the PLO as the legitimate body representing the wishes of the Palestinian people. That was a improvement on being terrorist gangsters to be crushed without mercy. It was also a big risk for Rabin, as was the idea of giving any amount of self-rule to the Palestinians. A few years later he paid for this risk-taking with his life, assassinated by an Israeli Jewish right wing extremist.

Seeds of failure

The seeds of failure, however, where there at the very beginning. The two sides brought with them to Oslo very different baggage.

The Palestinians arrived for the talks at another low point in their history. The global public had learnt a great deal about the 20 year Israeli Occupation of Palestinian territory through the First Intifada that erupted (independently of the PLO) in late 1987. The stone-throwing children of Gaza and the West Bank rebelling against the might of the Israeli Defence Forces created powerful images that no amount of Israel hasbora could counter. But Arafat’s political and moral mistake in backing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 squandered that goodwill and left the PLO virtually bankrupt. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Soviet Union had lost the Palestinians their only super power support and the PLO leadership feared the rise of Hamas in Gaza as an alternative champion of the people. Oslo was a chance to regain status, funding and influence.

Israel on the other hand continued to have the support of the United States, now left standing as the only super power and looking to dominate the New World Order. Rabin, and his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, understood that if there had to be compromises for peace Israel would be making them from a position of strength.

Little of this background comes through in Rogers’ play. And neither does a clear sense of the longer-term historical disparity between the two negotiating teams that came to Norway. Israel by 1993 was a well developed State, the regional super power with a nuclear arsenal. The Palestinians had been displaced and dispossessed twice by the Israelis in 1948 and 1967. Their leadership were considered pariahs, exiled in Tunis, and fast growing out of touch, both geographically and politically, with its own people.

In his account of the secret talks, ‘From Oslo to Jerusalem’ the PLO’s senior representative in Norway, Ahmed Quirie, wrote:

“Under the circumstances we had no alternative but to go to Oslo…such a meeting seemed the last hope to keep our cause alive.”

But the methodology for the Oslo talks took none of this into account. Personal psychology rather than natural justice was the guiding principle. Here’s how Terje Rod-Larsen explains his approach to peacemaking early on in the play:

“This new model – my model – is not in the organisational but in the personal. A process of negotiation allowing the most implacable of adversaries to focus on a single issue of contention; resolve it, then move on to the next single issue of contention; as they gradually build a bond of trust.”

It’s true that personal relationships can be as critical to high politics as they are to everyday life.  It was a strange way though to deal with a situation where the power relationship between the two peoples being represented was as asymmetrical as you could possibly imagine. Why did anyone think such a process based on a false equivalence was a fair way to operate? The same power discrepancy that existed outside of the room would continue to exist inside of the room and long after the Accords were signed. But it remains the international lens through which the situation is seen. A ‘conflict’ rather than a colonisation, a ‘dispute’ rather than a dispossession.

Scathing assessment

There were some who saw the danger for the Palestinians from the very beginning. They recognised that far too much was being given away without anything in return, beyond political recognition for the PLO. The key issues for the Palestinians: refugees, Israeli Settlements, East Jerusalem, and the exact nature of their proposed ‘autonomy’ were kicked somewhere up the road to eventual ‘final status talks’. Important U.N. Resolutions which had previously provided an international framework for peace appeared to be downgraded. What had been considered “indisputably Palestinian land” overnight became “disputed territory” up for negotiation.

Professor Edward Said, then a member of the Palestinian National Council, wrote a scathing assessment of Oslo just weeks after the Accords were signed and continued to chart the PLO capitulations throughout the 1990s. The first volume of his collected writings on Oslo ‘Peace and its Discontents’ is well worth reading. Here’s Said writing in the London Review of Books in October 1993:

“…rather than becoming stronger during the interim period, the Palestinians may grow weaker, come more under the Israeli thumb, and therefore less able to dispute the Israeli claim when the last set of negotiations begins [final status issues such as Jerusalem]…Does this mean, ominously, that the interim stage may be the final one?”

That’s very much how it looks today. As Said also predicted, the Palestinian Authority has become “Israel’s enforcer” on the ground, maintaining the occupation under the guise of limited self rule in Areas A and B of the West Bank. Meanwhile, the 60% of the land that is Area C (plus East Jerusalem) remains, a quarter century after Oslo, in complete Israeli control with a 600% increase in Settlers since the Oslo Accords were signed.

Not even ‘in the room’

In 2018 we have reached yet another low point in the Palestinian story . Trump’s announcement last December to recognise undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital showed how his administration has no intention of meaningful consultation on peace with the Palestinian Authority. This time they are not even ‘in the room’. Before Christmas, President Abbas said he would now refuse to co-operate with the Trump administration. But that assumes there was ever an invitation to co-operate in the first place.

Abbas is now trying to court Russia. But what leverage, political or economic, do the Palestinians have today? I can understand Putin’s involvement with Syria and Iran but why bother with the Palestinians? Their only power is as a moral cause in the world, one that sheds light and shares experience with other examples of power disparities and colonial oppression. The actions of one teenager, Ahed Tamimi, and her slap to the faces of two occupying Israeli soldiers, seems to have greater influence in the world than anything Abbas can do or say. Globally, it’s the New Zealand singer Lorde’s decision to cancel a concert in Tel Aviv that’s more powerful than anything coming out of PA compound in Ramallah.

The cost of Jewish nationalism

And what of Jewish opinion in Israel and around the world? Ironically, just as Palestinian nationalism appears to have reached the end of the road, a younger generation of Jews is becoming aware of the true cost of the Jewish national project. In Israel itself young Jews are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, because they do not wish to take part in the oppression of the Palestinian people. In the United States, Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow continue to recruit a generation railing at the ignorance or indifference of their elders. In the U.K. for the last two years 10% of Jewish students have voted for non- Zionist candidates for the Presidency of the Union of Jewish Students. But this awakening of Jewish conscience, while beginning to split the Jewish community, may be far too late to help the Palestinians.

Did you enjoy Oslo?

If you weren’t on the losing end of it all, it was possible to watch ‘Oslo’ and see a diplomatic as well as a theatrical success. But if the audience in our London West End theatre had been Palestinian rather than British, white and middle-class, I wonder if anyone would have applauded the performance.

Time to complete that feedback questionnaire.

Did you enjoy Oslo? Yes and No. But it’s good to be infuriated now and again.

Was Oslo good value for money? Not if you’re a Palestinian.

Did anything distract from your enjoyment? Yes, the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the play and the process it portrayed.

What do you think of the price for Oslo? Way, way too high.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Oslo? Next time, if there is a next time, let’s do this differently and better.

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