Nearly a quarter-century has passed since Yitzḥak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. The agreement signed on September 13, 1993 established the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative body of the Palestinian people and permitted its chairman, Yasir Arafat, to return to the West Bank after his extended isolation in Tunisia. Committing Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a final-status agreement, the so-called Oslo Accords opened the era of the peace process.
It is worth recalling the buoyant atmosphere that characterized not only that particular moment on the South Lawn but, more generally, the period in world history in which it occurred. Most dramatically, the cold war with the Soviet Union had ended in a triumph for the United States and its form of liberal democracy. If this was not quite the “end of history,” as a major public-policy essay had conjectured, the fall of the mighty Soviet empire raised similarly exuberant expectations for other arenas of conflict. Why, after all, couldn’t Israelis and Palestinians make peace?
To some, all the elements were in place. The Palestinians, it was averred, were willing to come to the table, and Israel was open, forward-looking, and “hopeful.” Its Labor-party leadership—not only the war hero Rabin but also Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak—had set aside any remaining illusions of permanent occupation. Having marginalized the “territorial maximalists,” Israelis were prepared to make the painful compromises for peace—a dynamic that President Bill Clinton, a friend of Israel, could help push along.
As even ardent supporters of the ensuing peace process will admit, things did not—to put it mildly—go according to plan, and the final-status agreement never came about. Today, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s (quite possibly fleeting) enthusiasm for the project, even the beginning of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority seems highly unlikely. The optimism that greeted the apparent breakthrough of 1993, however understandable in light of the cultural atmosphere of the time, in retrospect seems downright delusional. Yet many Westerners, Jewish and gentile alike, still look back at the Oslo years as a kind of golden age, one that shines only the brighter in contrast to the allegedly dark present.
Was Oslo a golden age? Those inclined to that belief now have the gift of a cleverly constructed drama that supports, and flatters, their view. Written by the New York playwright J.T. Rogers, Oslo tells the backstory of the Norwegian-brokered talks between informal envoys of the Israeli foreign ministry and the PLO over a ten-month period in 1992-93. Nearly three hours long, the play is heavy on dialogue and mostly lacking in the bells and whistles of many major New York productions. Nevertheless, by any non-Hamilton standard the play has been a hit, having moved from its debut last year at a small off-Broadway venue to the much bigger Lincoln Center Theater. On the evening I saw it, the crowd, more Upper West Side than Upper Midwest, gave the performers a rapturous standing ovation.
One might attribute this fervor at least in part to our own, highly fractious times, in which political, not to say partisan, drama is ripe for a comeback. But Oslo, which has been nominated for a 2017 Tony Award, is also an effective piece of indoctrination, mirroring, to a subtle but powerful degree, the dominant political mentality that helped produce the disastrous Oslo Accords themselves.
Aside from the iconic Rabin-Arafat handshake, the whole story of the Oslo negotiations is not especially well known, and Rogers deserves credit for telling it with relative fidelity. The events are seen from the perspective of three Norwegian diplomats: Terje Rød-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul, and Jan Egeland. Thanks to a shared zeal, whose motive is never examined, the three navigate all manner of obstacles in order to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in secret negotiations at a country house south of Oslo, where the play is largely set.
Indeed, the play quite artfully stresses the single most astonishing fact about the Oslo talks: not only were they secret, but, on the Israeli side, they were at first completely unauthorized. At the time, Israelis were forbidden by law from having direct contact with PLO officials. It was Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who unilaterally decided that flouting the law was justified by the end he sought. In December 1992, Beilin asked Yair Hirschfeld, a University of Haifa economist, to meet in London with the PLO’s finance minister, Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala. In January and early February, at further meetings in Norway, Hirschfeld and another economist, Ron Pundak, began drafting with the PLO team a document offering an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, the establishment of an autonomous Palestinian administration in the West Bank, and direct negotiations regarding a final-status accord.
Prodded along by the committed and good-humored Norwegians, the play shows us, the participants found their mutual mistrust and hatred giving way to grudging respect and then a kind of friendship. The other side was humanized, which in turn led to recognition of its grievances and rights—grievances and rights that the Palestinian side, particularly, is portrayed in the play as having been more justified in holding on to. Eventually, higher-level Israelis—Uri Savir of the foreign ministry and Joel Singer, a lawyer and confidant of Prime Minister Rabin—replaced the economists in an effort to hammer out a final draft according to which, in exchange for the aforementioned concessions, the PLO would renounce violence and recognize the state of Israel.
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In the theater, the climax comes with a last-minute intervention by Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister and Beilin’s direct superior, who had long been kept in the dark by his deputy. By mid-February 1993, when Beilin finally apprised his bosses about the talks in Oslo, the document had already been pushed far along, and even then he did not reveal much about it. Instead, he continued to downplay the significance of events in Norway until the spring, ultimately enabling himself to force the hands of his superiors.
Thus, by the time Beilin’s bosses were undeceived, they had willy-nilly been set by him on a radically transformed course vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Yet Peres, for his part, was far from unhappy at being presented with a document whose relative virtues and drawbacks had never been weighed fully by the government, let alone in public. To the contrary, he gladly commandeered the negotiations and agreed to recognize the PLO as the sole lawful representative body of the Palestinian people.
Though the play cuts out just before the handshake on the South Lawn, it does include a kind of postscript in which the actors acknowledge that the hoped-for peace has not yet arrived and then rattle off a carefully balanced list of contributing factors: Baruch Goldstein’s murderous attack in a West Bank mosque, the November 1995 assassination of Rabin, Palestinian bus bombings, and the like. Still, they claim, Oslo paved the way for the peace that must ultimately come, when it comes.
What, then, is the ideology behind Oslo? To be sure, its author, just like the Norwegian and other Western backers of the Oslo Accords, would label himself and his work as decidedly non-ideological. In the play, the Norwegian deputy foreign minister continually repeats the phrase: “trust the process.” What he means by this is that the two sides should defer or ignore final status questions in favor of building up stores of trust and goodwill; later, what originally has seemed insurmountable could turn out to be both logical and feasible.
The belief that process can trump hard political realities is, however, itself an ideological position, and a particularly devious one. In embracing it, the play permits itself to abstract almost completely from the geopolitical situation of Israel and the Palestinians and from the basic differences between their political and social makeups. Yes, the play acknowledges, there have been some eruptions of violence—Palestinians stabbing Israelis here, Yitzḥak Rabin banishing PLO fighters to the mountains of Lebanon there (fighters, the play neglects to mention, who were later permitted to return). These events, themselves carefully balanced in the play’s presentation, are so much background noise. In Oslo, political violence possesses no logic, or aim, of its own.
No less problematically, Oslo indulges in quite crass stereotypes of both Israelis and Palestinians—and there is a difference between the two stereotypes. The Israelis are either technocratic wonks or else hard-knuckled political animals. Uri Savir, in particular, comes off as a kind of used-car salesman with greasy hair. Although the playwright permits a single reference to the Holocaust as a reason for Israel’s existence, no reference at all is made to any historical or natural right of the Jewish people to their state.
Meanwhile, in a piece of near-transparent liberal condescension, the Palestinian characters, full of a fanatical love of homeland, are presented almost as noble savages. Indeed, the hero of the play is Ahmed Qurei: the only character permitted poetic reflections centering on his life in pre-1948 Palestine and on his longing to return to Jerusalem. Although he and his Palestinian colleagues are given to rage attacks, the rage itself is portrayed as honest and noble, emblematic of the Palestinian cause itself.
Still, the play, as a play, is only partly to blame for perpetuating these images. It was the Norwegians’ emphasis on process itself that compelled pushing out of sight the relative natures of the two peoples in question, as well as political reality. Removing Arabs and Israelis from their actual circumstances, the Norwegians in the play come bearing not only a lovely country house but also the clichés of contemporary social science: acknowledge the equal validity of the grievances and pain of the other party, avoid first principles and implacable demands, focus on attainable, short-term goals. The philosopher Immanuel Kant remarked somewhat insouciantly that he could organize good government for a race of devils, provided they were intelligent. The architects of the Oslo Accords seemed to believe earnestly that they could engineer peace between two groups of people, whoever they were, provided their leaders parroted the latest textbooks of social psychology and “getting to yes.”
Whatever the fellow feeling exchanged in that country house, Israelis and Palestinians still would have to return to their true selves in their specific geopolitical circumstances. In the context of the negotiations, recognizing the PLO as the legitimate authority of the Palestinians made perfect sense. The Israelis had a single government; the Palestinians would need a single government. That is how agreement between them would become binding. In fact, Palestinians had never experienced self-government or cultivated the basic institutions of such a system. And so the real-life effects of this make-believe, as at least a few critics foresaw at the time, turned out to be both tragic and deadly. In particular, after having been successfully confined to Tunisia, the arch-terrorist Arafat came back to Ramallah a hero, and soon was given unlimited cash and a Palestinian security force that for all intents and purposes became a private army.
With the stroke of a pen, Oslo put Arafat and his henchmen in charge of territories and of a people among whom they had not even lived for many years. No single decision was better placed than this one to wreak terrible havoc on the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. In Oslo, recognizing the PLO and elevating Arafat are taken to be an act of historic repatriation, the necessary transcendence of a grievance on the road to peace; instead, it became the necessary and sufficient enabler of war.
This is hardly to downplay the importance of process, or proceduralism, in political life, not least in the functioning of a modern liberal democracy. The U.S. Constitution itself is largely a procedural document: it’s not about substance or political outcomes, but about doing things the right way. But the architects of the Constitution saw the document as both shaping and expressing the specific reality of an independent, self-governing American people living in a contiguous and congruent set of states. That single people, moreover, was presumed to be dedicated to the non-procedural rights embodied in the Declaration of Independence, rights that the Declaration intended government to secure. In the forming of the Oslo Accords, by contrast, reality disappeared, replaced by an obsession with process that deliberately disregarded culture, history, and politics.
How, then, explain perhaps the most baffling fact of all: the embrace of “the process” by the Israeli public and its leadership? After all, hardheaded men like Yitzḥak Rabin had spent their lives castigating Westerners for their liberal naïveté concerning the intentions of the PLO and the Arab states. In part, the embrace, hesitant in Rabin’s case, wholehearted in Peres’s, can be explained in terms of a governmental system that permitted a minor, in-over-his-head figure like Yossi Beilin to manipulate and alter the country’s strategic posture—resulting in a fiasco that was then mismanaged by his bosses.
To be fair, Rabin in accepting the Oslo process did seem to have certain strategic calculations in mind. If Israel could “solve” the Palestinian conflict and disconnect it from other issues in the Arab and Muslim world, it would have a freer hand in dealing with future threats likely to come from either Iran or Iraq. This plausible but rather vague theory, however, did not reckon with whether the Palestinian question could be “solved” in the manner proposed by Oslo. What’s more, it was never presented to the public for any kind of debate. Ideology was allowed to play the key role, including with some of the decision-makers themselves. Did not Shimon Peres, soon after the signing of the accords and for the remainder of his life, dedicate himself to a vision of a “new Middle East” in which things like shared water technology would transcend cultural and political divides?
In this respect, Israelis in the rose-colored 1990s were just as likely as Westerners to succumb to post-cold-war utopianism and defer to the supposed expertise of academic technocrats. When news of the Oslo Accords broke in 1993, the language of peace swept through Israeli society like a massive wave. By September of that year, with the signing in Washington, few possessed even the language with which to question the logic of the peace process.
Of course, that is no longer the case. The wave would soon enough subside, and within a decade, thanks to the bus bombings of the 1990s followed by Arafat’s terror war of the early 2000s, Israelis would be left with many regrets. Today, it almost goes without saying that a play like Oslo would have little chance of stirring an Israeli audience to ecstatic applause.
True, a fair number of Israelis, mainly in the cultural elite, do long for the years of the Oslo Accords, but they express that longing as a kind of despair. Oslo, they say, offered the state its final chance to deal with the demons tearing at the national conscience ever since the founding in 1948 and especially since the Six-Day War of 1967. The failure to achieve peace in the 1990s thus marked the moment when Israel, in this view, was lost, and ever since then the country has entered into an inexorable decline, its character increasingly split between crass materialism and a brutalism born of occupation, its society increasingly vulnerable to fanatical religious passions and politics. As the historian Ze’ev Sternhell put it in a recent interview: “I see a terminal illness consuming the nation I so love.”
For a larger portion of Israelis, the peace accords of the 1990s are also seen—but for a very different reason—as a principal cause of the miseries suffered by the country in recent decades. Having foolishly bought into the prospects of a future peace, whose lineaments were never exactly defined, Israel soon experienced political violence on a previously unimagined scale. To many Israelis, including many former peaceniks, Oslo, which is to say the terrible folly of Oslo, is what produced this violence, as well as the hardships involved in repressing it. For a clear sign of the resultant fallout, one need only consider the grudging acknowledgment by Israel’s current Labor party, the party of the peacemakers Rabin and Peres, that under current circumstances direct negotiations are highly unlikely to produce peace.
Israelis have had to suffer the consequences of the Oslo process, and have drawn their conclusions on that basis. One can only hope they have also thoroughly come to grips with the ideological lie at its heart. For their part, have American politicians and policy makers, and American Jews, steeled themselves to resist the reckless interventions of supposedly well-meaning and theoretically sophisticated dream peddlers, some of them in positions of high public office? To judge by the rapturous ovations greeting performances of Oslo: no.