Who said Oslo was a dud? Well, Oslo the agreement, signed with much fanfare and effusive handshakes on the White House lawn exactly 24 years ago this month, was. But Oslo the play is not.
In fact, Oslo premiered successfully in April this year, winning several important awards, including a Tony for Best Play, with the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantly ballyhooing: “Some works of art cry out for large canvases, and Oslo is undeniably as expansive as any in recent Broadway history, directed with a master’s hand [by JT Rogers]”. And at the end of September, this smash hit, about the behind the scenes efforts of Mona Juul and Terj Rod-Larson to bring Palestinian and Israeli officials together to negotiate a peace agreement, will have a four-month run at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre in London.
Well and good. But if all the world’s a stage, as the bard professed, let us move from Broadway to Palestine, where the real Oslo played out, in real time, exactly a year short of a quarter century ago.
So many ordinary Palestinians who lived in the West Bank at the time, and could see with their own eyes how the Israeli government did not shy from frenziedly accelerating the expansion of old colonies there, and the building of new “for Jews only” roads to connect them to Israel, at the time pointed to September 13, 1993 — the day the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House Lawn — as “a date which will live in infamy”, much in the manner that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, identified December 7, 1941, the day the Empire of Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.
Those Palestinians were later forgiven their resort to this seemingly hyperbolic rhetoric, for as time went on, it became clear that the people of Palestine ended up getting nothing, absolutely nothing, and Israel getting an embarrassment of riches, from the deal.
How so? Well, consider this. Just over a year after Oslo, in October 1994, Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel, formalising diplomatic, trade and security cooperation with it. And after that — arguing that if Palestine was now “at peace” with Israel, there was no reason for them to hold back — other countries followed suit. So India and China did just that, enabling Israel to reap great benefits from the formalisation of diplomatic, trade and military ties with the two most populous nations in the world. Elsewhere, in Africa, Asia and South America, countries that hitherto had been hesitant to deal with Israel, effectively invoked the same argument and signed similar diplomatic treaties. No one knew at the time that Israel negotiated in bad faith and had no intention of impeding, let alone blocking, its colonial designs on Palestine. And those Palestinian officials who negotiated secretly, in a secluded castle outside the Norwegian capital, with their Israeli counterparts, negotiated in the dark, for they did so in the absence of a single expert in international law at their side to advise them on the many loopholes in the accords they were signing on the dotted line.
And look at the facts on the ground today, exactly 24 years after the fact. The entire notion of a “peace settlement”, or “peace negotiations” leading to one, are totally discredited, seen by one and all as a farce. Among Palestinians, there is apathy and cynicism. The national mood is imbued with resignation, as people, after 50 years of subjugation to the rule of the gun by a foreign occupier, gasp for breath, seeing no way out, around or through their malaise. And the security cooperation between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the Israeli government has served, at the end of the day, to perpetuate that occupation.
While the PNA is called upon to “keep the peace” in the territories — which it dutifully does — it simultaneously finds itself unable to protect the people it represents from encroachment on their land, violence by colonist zealots and the indignity of interminable checkpoints. And so it goes.
In fact, the Palestinians are far, far more vulnerable and helpless today than they were before the Oslo Accords were signed close to a quarter century ago At least then they were, though an occupied people, free agents — free to the extent that they were free to revolt against those who occupied, robbed and tormented them. As Hussain Agha and Ahmad Khalid, co-authors of A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine (2006) and sometime negotiators, wrote in the New Yorker on August 6: “Whether the Palestinians would be better served in raw contact with the occupation without the mediating influence of the PNA is open to question, but the cumulative corrosive impact of the PNA’s role as shield and security subcontractor to the occupation is undeniable — especially with no accompanying political returns”.
All, however, is not lost for Palestinians, whether under occupation or in exile. Despite the despair, despite the sense of existential futility that engulfs them at this moment of immediacy in their history, they remain suffused with that notion of “Palestinian-ness” that has defined their identity since the dismemberment of their homeland in 1948. In addition to that, there’s growing international sympathy for Palestinians — all the way from Ireland to Iceland and from Brazil to Belgium, while conversely there is a progressive erosion of Israel’s standing around the globe.
In short, Palestinian rights have become encoded, as it were, in the world’s conscience, while Israel’s excesses have exposed it as a cruel settler state not much different from South Africa in its apartheid heyday.
Never mind that Oslo on Broadway is having its day while Oslo in Palestine has had its eclipse. In Palestine, it be will historical imperatives that will define the nation’s future. And the future looks good for Palestinians and mighty bleak for Israelis.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.