The Play “Oslo” Perpetuates the Great Fantasy of Diplomacy

January 23, 2017 | Jonathan Tobin
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J.T. Rogers’s play Oslo—about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that took place in that city—had a run at Lincoln Center last summer and is scheduled to open on Broadway in the spring. While praising the acting and direction, Jonathan Tobin concludes that the play itself “fails as history,” most notably by ignoring the waves of terror and bloodshed that the Oslo Accords brought in their wake:

An 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. . . . [Thus the Norwegian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife, the diplomat Mona Juul] became convinced that all that was needed to break the impasse [between Israel and the Palestinians] 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. . . .

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. . . . [By] 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. . . .

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 ends with his triumphant re-entry to Paris in 1815 but leaves 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. . . . 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.

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