Depending on whom you ask, and when, the Oslo Accords—the 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, famously sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, and PLO chairman Yasir Arafat—either helped the parties advance toward peace, paved the way to further Palestinian ruin, or imperiled Israel’s very existence. The Declaration of Principles, as the document was officially called, wound up being as open to competing interpretations as, well, every other aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict. (I’ll fess up at the top: I’m in the camp of option B, maintain a sliver of irrational attachment to A, and file C under “hysterical fabrication.”) About one aspect of the agreement, however, there is unanimity: How it came to be is one helluva story.
A half-dozen Palestinian and Israeli negotiators hashed it out secretly over nine months, meeting periodically in Norwegian hideaways. Meanwhile, the official talks limped along the road to nowhere without any of their participants—not least their sponsor, the United States—having a clue that a parallel process was under way in the countryside around Oslo. Several of the players in the back-channel talks wrote memoirs about the experience; other writers have reconstructed the events through extensive interviews. Scores of analysts across the political spectrum have written books about the accords themselves, their choppy implementation and bloody aftermath. Now the playwright J.T. Rogers has added Oslo, an engaging three-hour drama chronicling the covert conclaves. It’s currently running at Lincoln Center Theater in a crisp production directed by Bartlett Sher.
Rogers did considerable research and interviewing to build the play. He grabs colorful details from some of the memoirs: Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin’s assertion that his stomach can’t handle anything spicier than gefilte fish, the bad jokes the negotiators regale each other with. But of necessity, Rogers invents the dialogue and condenses events (reducing the number of Palestinian negotiators, confining the meetings to a single location). Still, he does not veer from the essential action: the incremental progress from grandstanding to deal-making as the wary negotiators warm to each other.
Rogers picks up the story when a married couple—Terje Rød-Larsen, director of an applied-science institute, and Mona Juul, a Norwegian Foreign Ministry official—offer to host the sessions. (Rogers credits the pair with the initiative, but two Israeli economics professors, at least according to their own accounts, were already testing the waters with the Palestinians and seeking an international sponsor for the clandestine meetings, a call that Rød-Larsen and Juul answered; meanwhile, the PLO’s finance minister, Ahmed Qurie, was also seeking avenues for direct discussions.) The couple provides the playwright with a framing device: They’re the observers through whose eyes we enter the events. More than the PLO delegates’ longing to return home from exile, more than both sides’ determination to end the violence, the couple’s stakes—keeping things going, keeping things secret—drive the dramatic action. Rogers deftly ratchets up the tension as Norwegian officials periodically try to put an end to the meetings; as the press catches wind of them; and as the Israeli team gathers new members, each more obstinate than the last.