NEW YORK — The iconic image is forever etched in the minds of those who remember it: Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in that unlikeliest of handshakes, under the watchful eye of then-president Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.
At the time, it looked like the dawn of a new era, but it was not meant to be. Still, there is a far deeper and more complex story behind that image. It involves an unusual couple — both Norwegian diplomats — who somehow got these two unlikeliest of parties to the negotiating table in secret.
The dramatized result –“OSLO” by playwright J.T. Rogers and directed by Lincoln Center Theater’s Bartlett Sher — is, according to Ben Brantly of The New York Times, “the stuff of crackling theater.”
Word first surfaced over a year ago of the impending “off-Broadway” production of “OSLO,” downstairs in the smaller Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
The story begins with Rod-Larsen, then a think-tank executive, and his wife Mona Juul (now Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain). They had met Sher through Manhattan’s Chapin School, where both their daughters were classmates. The two families became friendly, and Rod-Larsen mentioned to Sher that he had a story which might make an interesting drama.
With the help of playwright Rogers, the result is so dramatic that it is now promoted with a quote from Joe Dziemianowicz’s Daily News review: “Can we make peace with enemies? ‘OSLO’ gives us hope.”
This reporter interviewed Rod-Larsen in his private office at New York’s International Peace Institute.
His story begins in the mid-1980s when his wife was posted to the Norwegian Embassy in Cairo. A sociologist by training, he had been head of Norway’s Fafo Institute, which made a specialty of “living conditions studies.”
In Cairo, he met Yasser Arafat’s brother, Dr. Fathi Arafat, founder of the Palestinian Red Crescent, who asked him to do such a study of the people in Gaza. After laboriously securing all the necessary approvals from the Israelis, he went to Gaza, where he would see both the anger on the faces of stone-throwing local youths, and the fear on the faces of Israeli soldiers, nearly the same age.
He also saw how both sides — especially the Palestinians — spoke entirely differently when away from the TV cameras, where their statements were for “domestic” consumption. Rod-Larsen quickly realized that if he could get both sides somewhere away from the cameras, perhaps some negotiation could be organized.
Rod-Larsen and Juul set the negotiating sessions in an isolated lodge outside Oslo, away from the prying eyes of the international press. Fortunately for them, there were relatively few journalists in Oslo anyway.
Rod-Larsen felt it was essential that the two sides meet, live and eat together, in different rooms in the same complex, so as to truly get to know each other as human beings.
He had the meetings set up in such a way that both sides met in a room, face-to-face, without his presence. “I am just a facilitator,” he said.
Besides breaking bread together, they got to delve into the depths of each other’s souls. The play shows the occasional outbursts of profanity, as well as humor.
Onstage, the interplay between the various characters is both highly dramatic and at times almost frightening. The Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst (portrayed by T. Ryder Smith) was distrustful of the whole process from the start. He is portrayed saying several times, “It is closed down; it is over!” He was also particularly fearful of any leaks, which did occasionally happen.
It should be remembered that all of the negotiations in Oslo were, effectively, a sideshow. There were “official” talks going on in Washington. And the Israelis were particularly fearful of the entire operation, since any direct contact with the PLO was officially forbidden for them by law. One of the show’s single most dramatic lines comes in the second act: “This back channel… has now become the official channel.”
Part of the later first act involves the Palestinian demand for a “higher-ranking” Israeli official to join the negotiations. The Israelis finally agreed, and duly dispatched Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), then Director-General of the Foreign Ministry. Savir is portrayed as a loud, brash negotiator, much given to regular outbursts of profanity. At one point he jumps up onto the set’s central coffee table, brashly brandishing his glass of champagne. This has now become one of the show’s iconic images, much used in its promotional campaigns and advertising.
Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) is the central character, around whom the entire play revolves. He did not have a background as a diplomat. It was only when his wife (Jennifer Ehle) was posted to Cairo that he became involved in the Middle East. Later, he would become the UN’s Special Representative for Middle East Peace, and Envoy to the PLO.
In actuality, Ehle bears some vaguely superficial resemblance to Mona Juul, but Mays looks nothing at all like Rod-Larsen. (It was unique and somewhat unnerving to see a character portrayed on stage, and then look back to see the real person seated in the center section, two rows behind.)
The play follows its tortuous and dramatic course: The Israelis agree to surrender control of the Gaza Strip, but not Jericho. Finally, they agree to cede control of the Jordan Valley city, as well. They started with two low-level negotiators from Haifa, then brought in Uri Savir. The Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as their capital; at the end, all Jerusalem issues are left for a future agreement.
Whereas the Israelis refuse to have the agreement worded as being made with “the PLO,” Foreign Minister Holst — quietly but insistently — tells them they will deal with the PLO. This would ultimately lead to the creation of the Palestinian Authority as a semi-sovereign body.
At the end, the characters all assemble on stage, with an announcer telling the fate of each: Holst would die of a heart attack just months later, in January 1994.
Palestinian Chief Negotiator Ahmed Qurei would briefly serve as Palestinian prime minister, and then retire from politics.
Uri Savir would also retire, and ultimately go on to found the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv.
Shimon Peres would go on to serve as Israel’s President, and die in 2016 at the age of 92, a statesman mourned around the world.
And of course Yitzhak Rabin (not a character in the play) would be cut down by an assassin in November 1995 — an event that has changed the course of Middle East history.
A special performance of “OSLO” was held for the diplomatic community, sponsored by the International Peace Institute, of which Rod-Larsen is president, after which Rod-Larsen, Rogers and Sher held a panel discussion for the audience.
Rogers told of his trials in bringing this true story to the stage. An experienced playwright with several previous works to his credit, he’d had no more active involvement in Middle East politics than the average citizen. But he crafted this story so that it artfully portrays not only the dramatic tensions of the negotiations, but the tense interplay of personalities as well.
Scheduled through July 2 at the Lincoln Center Theater, “OSLO” was nominated for seven Tony Awards: For Best Play, Best Director (Sher), Best Leading Actor in a Play (Mays), Best Leading Actress in a Play (Ehle), and Best Featured Actor in a Play (Aronov, who plays Uri Savir). The remaining two nominations are for Best Scenic and Lighting Design of a Play.
At the star-studded June 11 awards show, ‘Oslo’ garnered Best Play, and Aronov took home Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. Playwright Rogers dedicated the award to “the ladies and gentlemen of the Oslo Accords who believed in democracy, who believed in seeing peace, seeing their enemies as humans, I give this up to them.”
What Rogers and Sher achieve here is nothing short of extraordinary. Though the original version has been slightly trimmed, this reporter well recalls several moments in the play where the dramatic writing was so brilliant that it left him and his (Israeli) guest absolutely speechless.
— with contributions from AFP
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