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Oslo: A drama that perpetuates falsehoods about the infamous accords

JT Rogers' script hinges on the viewpoint of Northern European outsiders and is infected with covert racism against Palestinians

Some political narratives are particularly unnerving precisely because they reinforce the dominant discourse, while claiming to be sympathetic to historically marginalised communities. The award-winning play Oslo by JT Rogers is one such production, recklessly perpetuating significant falsehoods 25 years after the notorious accords were signed. 

I read the script carefully. Sadly, I could find no redeeming aspects to what is being lauded as a masterful rendition of a 'fleeting moment of bright hope'

As the play was being performed and protested in Seattle, I read the script carefully. Sadly, I could find no redeeming aspects to what is being lauded as a masterful rendition of a “fleeting moment of bright hope” in the otherwise dreary context of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. 

Indeed, the mere presentation of the Norwegian-negotiated Oslo Accords as a valuable step towards justice - only failing because there was not enough follow-through - is indicative of the playwright’s and gushing reviewers’ overall failure to view Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination as prerequisites for peace. 

Bold and visionary statesman?

Inspired by the real-life meeting of the playwright with the Norwegian couple behind the Oslo agreements, the play hinges on the viewpoint of Northern European outsiders and is infected with the occasionally overt, but mostly unquestioned, covert racism against Palestinians that pervades European societies, alongside the mainstream Western belief that Israelis can do no wrong.  

At no time in the play do the protagonists realise or address this in themselves. For example, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who participated in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and ordered the breaking of bones of unarmed Palestinian teenagers in the late 1980s, is referred to not as a war criminal, but as a bold and visionary statesman.

At no point do any of the Palestinian protagonists get to address or denounce their negative portrayal, which consequently goes unquestioned

Former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres enters the play late as a heroic paternal leader, with no mention of his membership in the Haganah - one of the principal forces behind the Nakba - his key role in establishing the first illegal settlements, or his overseeing of the Qana massacre, among many other Israeli crimes.  

Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, is left offstage and constantly referred to as either a clown with funny gestures and incomprehensible speech, or “a bloodstained terrorist”, one of those who “bomb your markets and blow up your buses”. There is no mention of the fact that bombing Arab markets was a tactic used by pre-Israel Zionist militants. 

The comparison of Arafat to Hitler - one of the most egregious accusations that could be lobbed at anyone - is tacitly accepted by the protagonists. This consistent characterisation is not redeemed by a later reference to the still-offstage Arafat having a good memory and being maybe not as stupid as they had assumed.

At no point do any of the Palestinian protagonists get to address or denounce their negative portrayal, which consequently goes unquestioned. 

Historical inaccuracies

Among the many historical inaccuracies that riddle the play is the claim by Israeli negotiators that they had finally found “someone we can deal with”, adding that this is something the Israelis have wanted for many years, without ever finding a “partner” in peace negotiations. The dishonesty behind such a claim, which again goes uncontested, is offensive, as it continues the lie that Israelis are eager to negotiate, while Palestinians are intransigent. 

There is ample evidence that, over the decades, Palestinians have made significant concessions, even as the Israeli leadership has ceaselessly grabbed more Palestinian land, exercised greater control over Palestinian lives, and engaged in greater violations of international law and the human rights of Palestinian people. 

Palestinians protesting against Israeli land seizures run to avoid tear gas fired by Israeli troops north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 4 January (AFP)

The play promotes another historical falsehood by asking the audience to believe that the Oslo Accords were a valuable step towards justice, if only they could have been implemented. The play thus ignores the overwhelming experience of Palestinians both in the occupied territories and the global Palestinian diaspora.  

Some Palestinians were happy enough at the time to be granted some cosmetic trappings of government: uniforms, guns, a flag, the return of some former leaders from exile. But by and large, Palestinians and their allies understood, even at the time, that the Oslo agreement was nothing more than a vaguely worded document that would serve to maintain and extend Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and thus to consolidate control under a system of apartheid: two laws for two peoples under one government. 

Apartheid legislation

Writing shortly after the signing of the agreement, the late great Edward Said urged: “So first of all let us call the agreement by its real name: an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” Said’s essay, “The Morning After,” is well worth re-reading in its entirety for its clear-eyed exposition of the many flaws of the deal. 

Today, the apartheid system negotiated in the Oslo Accords is becoming more obvious by the day, with Israel, the oppressor-occupier, regularly introducing new legislation to discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens, and Palestinians living under its military occupation.

The most recent apartheid legislation to be advanced would impose the death penalty on Palestinians who throw rocks at settlers, with no similar law for Israelis who attack Palestinians. 

A 'gentleman's agreement': How Israel got what it wanted from Oslo
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Additionally, much is made in the script of the supposedly failing Madrid negotiations, which needed to be saved by the back-channel Oslo negotiations. In fact, those Madrid front-channel negotiations, for all their failings, were conducted by Palestinians actually living in the West Bank and Gaza, with large participation by female Palestinian leaders.  

The Oslo process brought back the already questionable Palestinian leadership-in-exile, which was almost exclusively male-led, to displace the rising local leadership. 

The script leaves out a key reason for the success of the Oslo Accords: to guarantee return from exile, the Palestinian leadership-in-exile was willing to make more concessions to Israel than would have been acceptable to representatives of the movement from the West Bank and Gaza. The return of the male-led leadership almost entirely sidelined the local grassroots and women-led leadership that had arisen during the popular Palestinian intifada.

Imbalance of power

A good “liberal”, the playwright clearly has the intention of bringing his conflicting characters to understand and sympathise with the “Other”, but neither he nor the protagonists ever come to grips with the fact that they themselves come from a place of prejudice against Palestinians - a prejudice that persists through every turn of the page.

This causes the play - like the historic Oslo process - to ignore the power imbalance central to the conflict and to accept the viewpoint of those in power: that the conflict is about lack of communication, rather than an imbalance of power. 

This is not an age-old feud, but modern-day Israeli settler-colonialism, facilitated by Western countries and resisted by the indigenous Palestinian people

As I finished reading the script, I learned that the play was scheduled to be adapted for the big screen. The best I can hope for is that a weary public will have no interest in yet another movie on this topic, and will therefore not be exposed to yet more misrepresentations of what is, at base, a relatively simple situation.

This is not an age-old feud, but modern-day Israeli settler-colonialism, facilitated by Western countries and resisted by the indigenous Palestinian people.

Nada Elia is a diaspora Palestinian writer and political commentator, currently working on her second book, Who You Callin' 'Demographic Threat?' Notes from the Global Intifada. A professor of gender and global studies (retired), she is a member of the steering collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US President Bill Clinton stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as they shake hands on 13 September 1993 in Washington after signing the Oslo Accords (AFP)