How did two Norwegian diplomats – the married couple Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul – come to organize the back-channel talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993? That question lies at the heart of J.T. Rogers’ play Oslo, which began rehearsals this week. Although many of the figures in this story – Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat – are dead, the two Norwegians are still alive, and are characters in the play, and one of them, Rød-Larsen, who is now President of the New York-based International Peace Institute, spoke to the cast and creative team on Tuesday.
In this backstage blog for Oslo, I will be making a particular effort not to give the game away; the issues are fascinating but complex and to a large degree the drama should speak for itself. But some of what Rød-Larsen said bears sharing. A precipitating event in his Oslo-talks involvement came around 1990, after he and his wife had moved to Cairo and the first intifada was in motion. He was making a sociological study – he is a sociologist by academic training – of living conditions in Gaza. He observed young Palestinians and young Israeli soldiers in conflict. “They were around the same age,” Mr. Rød-Larsen said, “and they had the same scare in their faces.” This was, he added, “a striking picture that imprinted itself on me.” He thought: someone should do something.
Rød-Larsen became convinced that the talks going on at that time between the Israelis and Palestinians were foundering in part because of their massive size: around 160 people on each side. He saw the need for private diplomacy because “the dynamics of a small group are completely different than those of a large group.” A small group, he explained, involves the opportunity for trust. But it is also risky “because things can get very emotional.”
The small-group, back-channel talks that took place in 1993 in Oslo involved, among others: Yossi Beilin, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister; Uri Savir, Israel’s Director-General of the Foreign Ministry; Ahmed Qurie, the Finance Minister for the Palestine Liberation Organization; and Hassan Asfour, a PLO official liaison. But during the process Rød-Larsen also met Arafat in Tunis, where the PLO was then headquartered. “He was a legend,” Rød-Larsen said. “It was unreal to sit with him.” Their conversation began badly. Then Rød-Larsen began flattering Arafat. Soon, according to the Norwegian, “he started telling me stories about everyone he had met.”
As for the negotiation in Oslo, Rød-Larsen said “the psychology of it mattered so much.” Status was measured by each side in minute details of the arrangements – the room-size of their accommodations, for example. “Everything was playacting,” Rød-Larsen said. The drama resided in what to others might have seemed insignificant.
Again and again in his remarks to the Oslo cast, Rød-Larsen stressed that in diplomacy “there is a chess game occurring on the table and another one going on under the table. You have to understand both.” He added that the initial goals of the Oslo talks were to create trust and to reach agreement on what kind of agreement was wanted. Once those objectives were met the negotiations proceeded rapidly. Within nine months of their onset, Arafat and Rabin were shaking hands on the White House lawn.
After his remarks at the Oslo rehearsal, Rød-Larsen took questions from the cast; many of them focused on the real-life figures the actors will be playing. He concluded by pointing out how the Middle East has evolved since Oslo. The key Arab leaders have changed, and Saudi Arabia and Iran now have enhanced roles. “You couldn’t do an Oslo again today,” Rød-Larsen said.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.