The ‘Oslo Diaries’ Creators Explain Why They Haven’t Lost Hope for Peace

Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan discuss how the filming process altered their extreme leftist positions and why, despite failure, we should continue along the path of Rabin and Arafat

Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan
הילה מדליה

At the premiere screening of the film “The Oslo Diaries” at the Jerusalem Film Festival about six weeks ago, the atmosphere in the auditorium told the whole story. A substantial representation of the Israeli left, headed by key figures such as Zehava Galon, Tamar Zandberg and Yossi Beilin, filled the hall. They came wearing radiant faces, a festive sense of jubilation and with what seemed like total willingness to go back in time and repress if only for a moment the decadence without. The smiles were broad, the clothes were elaborate. They seemed prepared to enjoy themselves one more time amid those forgotten glorious moments, those faraway times when the Israeli left not only offered hope, but took initiative, demonstrated leadership and political daring and made astonishing achievements, a time when it was not even embarrassed to talk about that forgotten concept, “peace.”

And yet, the documentary film produced by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan did not let the decadent holiday mood that filled the Jerusalem Cinematheque go to their heads. It quickly wiped off smiles and shattered hearts.

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“The Oslo Diaries” turned an exhaustive, two-year diplomatic mission into a capsule of distilled emotions that erupted across the screen and washed over the viewers combinations of hope and despair, euphoria and melancholy, the joy of success and the burning sensation of failure. Viewers were drawn into a wrenching emotional journey that ventured between these distant poles with sharp frenetic movements. When the lights went up in the auditorium, one could easily discern that the lighthearted wedding ambiance had faded without a trace. In its place were tears of pain, the dejection of lost opportunity and an especially searing sensation of yearning for those distant and forgotten days when the Israeli left was still relevant and had something to offer.

“The Oslo Diaries” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, won the Jerusalem Film Festival award for best screenplay, and has been purchased for broadcast by the American HBO network. Last Thursday, which marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles (aka the Oslo I Accord) on the White House lawn and the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the film was screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and was broadcast on American television. Israel’s Yes Docu channel broadcast that day the documentary’s expanded, three-episode version of the documentary.

The Oslo Diaries
צילום מסך יס דוקו

Both the series and the film are based on personal diaries written by several of the Israelis and Palestinians who spent many months around that table, sweating blood until they succeeded in formulating agreements that nearly, but only nearly, released the two peoples from the nightmare of a conflict that has refused to loosen its grip over this land.

Excerpts of these diaries – written by Ron Pundak, Uri Savir, Ahmed Karih (Abu Alaa), Yossi Beilin, Shimon Peres and Hanan Ashrawi – are voiced by narrators throughout the series, providing a glimpse not only behind the curtains of the talks, but also into the perceptions and inner thoughts of those who dared to sit down around that table with persons who until only moments earlier were considered their worst, cruelest enemies. The archival materials and interviews illustrate what was simultaneously happening out in the field – in Israel and in the territories – and was seeping into the negotiating room bubble, where fears and prejudices continued to melt away.

The Oslo Accords has not gone down in the history pages as a stunning success, but Loushy and Sivan stubbornly insist that they consider “The Oslo Diaries” an optimistic film. “We have screened this film in several countries, and everywhere we showed it they told us, ‘I am looking at the Israelis and Palestinians in the film, and there isn’t a single one that I wouldn’t want to have coffee with,’” explains Sivan. “So, if these are the scariest people around, if these are the bloodthirsty Palestinian murderers and the cruel Israeli storm troopers, then evidently there are still people on the other side with whom you can talk. As far as I’m concerned, that is a very optimistic statement.”

“When we came to Ramallah to conduct interviews for the film, our knees were shaking, but we found ourselves sitting in front of people who wanted to talk,” adds Loushy. “The current sense of despair is obvious. The situation on both sides is terrible, and it is uncertain where any hope may be found. Nevertheless, there are people on both sides interested in reaching a solution. The entire Palestinian leadership was interviewed. They wanted to talk, they wanted to say, ‘You have a partner.’ At a time when there are no Palestinians in the Israeli media, when the other side is invisible, this series shows that it is nevertheless possible, that there is a partner, and that there is therefore room for hope.”

The signing of the Oslo Accords, 1993.
Avi Ohayon / GPO

Blown opportunities

Loushy and Sivan are known primarily for their Ophir Prize-winning film “Censored Voices,” which exposed three years ago sections that had been censored from the best seller “The Seventh Day” that came out following the Six-Day War. Loushy directed that film, Sivan took part in writing production and editing, and although the creative collaboration between them has persisted into several other films, “The Oslo Diaries” is the first time they are sharing the directing credit. The couple has two children. They were interviewed via Skype because they were at work on a new project in the United States. They apologize that they cannot reveal the subject of said project.

They decided to bring the story of the Oslo Accords to the screen after observing that so many films about wars were being made, but not a single film was trying to ascertain why there was, in fact, no peace here.

“It is a naïve question, of course, but in our opinion, there are two factors contributing to this,” notes Sivan. “One is that it has something terribly not photogenic about it, because there are no explosions or blood spurting across the screen in negotiations. And the second thing is that there is something frustrating about it, because there are no good guys and bad guys, no losers and victors, no catharsis. All you hear frpm both sides are mainly sighs of despair.”

The signing of the Oslo Accords, 1993.
Avi Ohayon / GPO

They addressed the photogenic challenge partly by means of dramatic reenactments of the talks held in the Norwegian snow and through use of fascinating archive materials. As for the lack of blood spurting on the screen, the Israeli reality, which hemorrhaged during those years amounts of blood that could sustain 1,000 movies, compensated for it. As for the paucity of identifiable good guys and bad guys, they dealt with that by means of the hysteria of despair, fear and self-destructiveness found around the negotiating table. On every occasion, someone or something was found to pull the rug out from under the talks, thwarting hopes for peace, and bringing the Middle East back into the regular abnormal situation from which it has been unsuccessful at extricating itself for so many years.

“The Oslo Diaries” highlights the exceedingly rare hope that emerged at the time, offering an escape route from this lunacy, as well as the tragedy of how it was trampled by an endless series of acts of violence: suicide terror attacks, closures clamped on the territories, the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the kidnapping of Nachshon Wachsman, a leader who fanned flames in Zion Square (without knowing the extent to which he would yet succeed in cultivating this talent for crowd incitement) and the assassination of a prime minister, of course. Each of the sides contributed at the time from its finest talents to crush the hope of Oslo.

“I came initially to this film from the radical left, from a stance according to which Israel never wanted peace,” confesses Sivan. “I came to it with an aggressive approach, one of ‘now we will expose the atrocities and show how the Israelis did their manipulations and how the Palestinians caved in’. But over the course of our work, my opinions changed. It was an authentic attempt to make peace. For instance Rabin did not need the Oslo Accords; his situation in the polls was perfectly fine. It was not an attempt to save his career as was the case with Ariel Sharon’s disengagement. And there were people like Beilin, Savir and (Yoel) Zinger who really believed that this is the way. And after this shift of perspective, I realized that this is not a story of two generals who fooled their peoples, but a tragedy about two politicians with a lot of courage, and about two peoples who did not want this peace.”

Loushy comments, as well, that she arrived “with a readiness to pulverize this agreement.” She notes: “The film really shows how Rabin did not really go the whole distance, how there were botched opportunities, and the fact that Israel pulled out of such a small area in Oslo II. I, too, was surprised to discover that there was a real willingness to resolve the conflict, to end the occupation. Rabin’s speech in the Knesset before Oslo II, for example, in which he said that we are occupying 2.5 million Palestinians, is something that would not go down today. So, it’s true, there were plenty of holes in the agreement and it could have been better, but when all is said and done there were two leaders here who wanted to go for peace. For me, that was the main discovery, and ironically, it also holds out hope.”

Simon Peres in the Oslo Diaries
צילום מסך יס דוקו

The series “The Oslo Diaries” explains, among other things, how the secret talks came to be, and how their participants masked what was going on. For instance, Savir, the then-director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told everyone he was going to the Cannes Film Festival, but as soon as he got to his hotel room, he hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door and took off for Oslo. She relates how the Palestinians surprised the Israelis with the proposal that Israel evacuate Gaza first, and how Rabin forfeited a historic opportunity to sign his name to a permanent agreement, skipping through all of the intermediate stages. And she makes it clear that following the Rabin assassination, a document was placed before Shimon Peres in which both of the sides had already agreed on all of the issues of the permanent settlement, but that he refused to sign it, explaining that he lacked the mandate to take such a far-reaching move. Although most of the revelations have already been published, their packaging together and the Rashomon construct that makes it possible to assess the events from several points of view – that are not only Israeli – are what make this series so fascinating.

We are still bleeding

What tears at one’s heart in particular while watching the documentary is the realization that even if trust had been built around the negotiating table, agreements had been reached and brave bonds of friendship had been woven, these successes failed to seep into the street. There, the two peoples were unable to shake themselves of the fears and prejudices, which eventually toppled the agreements that had been reached with so much sweat and tears, and through a rare convergence of circumstances that it is difficult to know when, if at all, they will reoccur.

“One of the depressing insights we had in the course of the work was that the Israelis and Palestinians are both very strong peoples, the sort that will not be broken in time of war even if they sustain serious setbacks. But in an era of peace, after only two or three terror attacks, they will get up and say, ‘That’s it, we’ve gone as far as can with this, let’s go back to shelling,’” comments Sivan. “And that is sad, because you can see it happening on both sides. On the Palestinian side, it is another humiliation at a checkpoint and another curfew, and then they throw up their hands. And on the Israeli side a terror attack and another terror attack, and suddenly all of the people who can keep it up for years in Lebanon are saying that the home front is not strong enough to handle the stress.”

The inability to pass the hope and trust from the negotiating room to the people may be compared, in his opinion, to a Greek tragedy. “Rabin and Arafat hated one another until the last day. Beilin said that only after Rabin was assassinated did the relationship between them become really close,” Sivan says, smiling. “So, they would not be friends, but they did take a blind leap of faith of ‘I am relying on you to act on behalf of my interests,’ and in this way they started to trust one another. The fatal error was that Rabin did not come and say, this is my friend Arafat, and Arafat did not say, I am a friend of the Zionists. Each of them withdrew into his own place. Arafat said we will return to Jerusalem no matter what, and Rabin said that it is impossible to trust these Arabs. Neither of them got up and shouted, ‘This is our partner.’”

Loushy adds: “There was a failure to understand that in order for the talks to succeed, each one had to sell to his people the understanding that if things are good for my neighbor, then things will be good for you, too. It didn’t happen, and it is tragic. There were people there who wanted to go past peace and powerful bonds were woven between them – Uri Savir and Abu Alaa, for example, are still good friends – but we are still bleeding here, so this is no doubt a tragedy. No one says Oslo succeeded, and time does not play in our favor. Precisely because of this, it is important to go back and see how it could be done better. We need a leader who will say in a strong, clear voice that this is the solution.”

This film is an important outcry for them. “This is a very painful shout of the here and now,” says Sivan. “When we started working on the series three years ago, people told us, ‘Bibi is going to make peace, he is cooking up something at the highest echelons, release the series quickly before it becomes irrelevant.’ That didn’t happen, of course. So, I can only wish that in another few years the series will be irrelevant, that it be forgotten and expunged from the Israeli canon,” says Sivan.

Loushy agrees: “The despair at the current situation is our outcry. An outcry that says ‘Enough, that’s as far as it goes.’ It is illogical that archives about Bibi 25 years ago show him standing on the stage and speaking, and you look around and understand that nothing has changed.”

Not an internal discourse

Now, in Los Angeles, they are surrounded by people who are troubled by the possibility that Donald Trump is crushing their dream of a better life. “I say to them, ‘At least you folks have a chance. We, on the other hand, live in a place where only ten percent are saying that we are interested in two states,’” says Sivan. “My optimism is at a low, but specifically for that reason it was important for us to raise an outcry. Our struggle now is to rise up and demand a solution, to fight so that this will happen.”

He takes advantage of the opportunity to take a jab at the venue on which this interview is being published. “I don’t want to be the Haaretz newspaper that in the past few years has tended toward an internal conversation that addresses itself to one quarter of one percent of the people, an attempt to say let’s analyze why the left is not left enough, let’s slaughter Rabin because he was not a man of the left. I think the left has to assess itself, but since we are living in a state in which the discourse is not between Gideon Levy and Tamar Gozansky, but is taking place much more so between Elor Azaria and people who ascend the Temple Mount looking for the Third Temple there – it is a conversation that may be interesting, but it is not relevant.”

Sivan says that the most important conversation that should happen now is a call for optimism. “We need to say out loud that there was hope here once, and that it can be restored,” he says. “To make it clear that Israel will not be an occupying state for eternity, because at some point in time the Palestinians will rise up, there will be another war, there will be an economic boycott, or the Israelis will stand up and say, ‘We are fed up.’ At some point it will end, and the question is only when – will it only happen in 50 years or in another 100 years, and how many people will die until that happens?”

He stresses the goal should be to bring that day closer, “instead of self-flagellating and wondering where we screwed up in Oslo.” He adds: “On the contrary. We should say Oslo was an outstanding route, not because it was a stage-by-stage agreement and not because we agreed to divide Jerusalem, but because it was a joint declaration by two sides who agreed to concede the idea of a whole, indivisible country. This is the first time since Begin that we divided up the land and said, friends, we will not live on the entire Land of Israel but rather on part of it. And that was an immense accomplishment. The same holds true for the realization that the Palestinians have a national identity and a flag that they are permitted to wave. That is what Oslo achieved, that is what must be extolled, and that is the path we should continue to walk down.”