“There is a short road that is actually long, and a long road that is actually short.”
—a young boy to Rabbi Yehoshua, Talmud, Eruvin 53b
The play Oslo opened this week on Broadway: a timely, talky drama set in 1993 during the secret talks between Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, at a time when it was illegal to speak to the PLO, which was rightly considered a terrorist organization.
Like many shows and movies—Titanic comes to mind—the playwright has a challenge from the start. Everyone knows how the story ends: on the White House lawn, with a famous handshake between Yasir Arafat and a visibly ambivalent Yitzhak Rabin, and a sense of euphoria in the air that perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict truly is over. And after that: waves of Palestinian terrorism; Rabin’s murder by a Jewish extremist; the ascent of Hamas in Gaza; failed follow-up deals; the Second Intifada; 9/11; the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza; several wars with Hezbollah and Hamas; and the election of Israel’s most right-wing government in history. Spoiler alert: peace doesn’t break out.
The playwright J.T. Rogers has discovered real drama not in headlines, but among second-tier politicians who struggle, negotiate, and yell (a lot) behind closed doors. It begins almost on a whim, by a married couple who want to see if peace can be negotiated away from the media, with the parties sequestered in a distant land. Mona Juul was a Norwegian foreign ministry official (later she became Ambassador to Israel) and her husband Terje Rød-Larsen a renowned sociologist. They launched the secret negotiations in Oslo, shuttling back and forth as intermediaries, and on occasion all but locking the adversaries in a room to deal with each other. Rød-Larsen constructed strict rules of organizational psychology—in the common spaces, over food and drink, everything was off-the-record, and the participants’ real humanity was allowed to materialize.
The playwright makes clear that the people are real, but the dialogue is invented and chronologies condensed. Onstage, it works: the soliloquies are big and passionate, the arguments are turbulent. As an audience member with a perspective on these things, I wanted to jump on stage and argue and point out distortions.
Best of all, real human beings are allowed to emerge. Ahmed Qurie, a Palestinian banker and key figure in the Fatah Central Committee, is drawn as funny, impassioned, and articulate; the Israeli Chief Negotiator Uri Savir steals many scenes with his outrageous exuberance. The characters drink lots of Scotch, which may be a suggestion for future negotiators.
Oslo artfully sidesteps hoary clichés—that the first step to peace is knowing your neighbor; that you don’t make peace with dinner-party guests, you make peace with enemies. One of the most insidious things about clichés is that occasionally they turn out to be true. In this case, we observe… if not warmth, at least a sense of recognition between the parties across the table. That alone should be a source of both aspiration and inspiration.
Today Oslo is bandied about in Israel as political shorthand: by the left as the seedling of an inevitable process, and by the right for futile dreams when there is no willing peace partner.
As for me, I remember the morning of September 13, 1993, watching the White House ceremony on C-Span in my Jersey City apartment. I remember how Arafat showed up in military fatigues, violating one of the understandings. I recall Rabin’s extraordinary speech, where he uttered the prayer Oseh Shalom Bim’romav, and invited everyone to seal it with an “Amen.” And, my God, I remember sobbing when that handshake happened.
It was as close as we’ve ever come. Subsequently it all fell apart. So was Oslo worth anything, or was it a pipe dream?
I stubbornly believe that Oslo was about possibility; that is the play’s perspective as well. As an anonymous child taught Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud, there are apparent shortcuts that ultimately turn out to be endless. And there are roads that seem long and arduous, but ultimately are the most direct path to a destination.
So it is with peacemaking. There are those on the left and the right who claim to have magical, simplistic formulae, which often involve the demonization of one side or the other. But the truth is: the situation is complex. There are no simple solutions. Yet Oslo showed that breakthroughs can happen, that honest people can talk to each other, and that the long road of negotiation ultimately is the only road there is.