'Oslo' the Play Has Nothing to Do With Oslo the Peace Process, Negotiators Say

Show just won Tony for Best Play, but there is little resemblance to what actually happened, says Israeli legal adviser to the talks

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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Michael Aronov, as Uri Savir, shakes hands with Anthony Azizi, as PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie in the new Oslo dramatization.
Michael Aronov, as Uri Savir, shakes hands with Anthony Azizi, as PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie in the new Oslo dramatization.Credit: T. Charles Erickson
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

On Sunday night the play “Oslo” won a Tony Award in New York for Best Play of 2017. “Oslo” is without a doubt one of the year’s great successes; over the past few months it has been filling the Lincoln Center Theater’s 1,200 seats every night for a play that tells the story of the secret peace talks that the Israelis and Palestinians conducted in 1993.

The play was written by J.T. Rogers, an outstanding playwright who wrote a story filled with drama and emotion. He succeeds in giving the audience the feeling that it is behind the scenes at the peace talks that eventually became a source of controversy between those who think they paved a path to peace and those who believe they made the Middle East situation worse.

“Oslo is a good play; it’s interesting and enjoyable,” says Joel Singer, who was the Israeli delegation’s legal adviser to the Oslo talks (and who’s also the son of the late actor Gideon Singer). “But there’s very little resemblance to what you see on stage and what actually happened in Oslo. Even though they claim that the play is based on extensive research, there’s almost no link between what you see on stage and what really happened.”

Singer, who lives in Washington and works for the law firm Sidley Austin LLP, one of America’s largest law firms, says the play is written from the viewpoint of Terje Larsen and his wife Mona Juul. They are the focus of the play and the ones pulling the strings.

“Someone watching the play gets the feeling that they were conducting the negotiations. I can tell you for certain that it wasn’t so. Larsen and Juul were a marginal presence, all told. I didn’t even give them the draft of the agreement until the last minute. All the speeches they give in the play to move the talks forward never really happened.”

Singer isn’t the only one critical of the play. Yossi Beilin, who was a member of the Israeli delegation to the talks, hasn’t seen it but was disturbed that the playwright never even contacted him even though Beilin’s character has a substantial role in the production. “No one bothered to call me, other than to tell me that there is such a play, and that if I’m ever in New York they’d be happy to invite me,” Beilin said. “I assume that the play has no connection to reality, but they tell me that it’s actually successful. it’s not clear to me why the playwright didn’t speak to those [involved] who are still alive.”

Singer David Broza, who now divides his time between Tel Aviv and New York, knew Ron Pundak, who was also on the Israeli team and who died three years ago, very well. Pundak’s character is also seen on stage. Says Broza, “It’s an important play, but the characters presented in it, especially Ron Pundak, who I knew, seem to be caricatures and they don’t deserve that. Ron was a very smart guy, very determined but also polite and elegant. He was quiet and modest. The other characters in the play like Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir and Yair Hirschfeld seemed to me to be very polite people and in the play they behave like political activists who are always yelling.”

Actress Mili Avital, who saw the play, said she cried like a baby at the opportunity that was missed to bring peace to the Middle East. Still, something onstage bothered her. “The Palestinian representatives looked authentic, but it was strange to me to see American actors playing the Israelis,” she said. “Onstage the Israeli representatives didn’t seem believable to me. It’s easier for an Israeli to play an American. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for an American to play an Israeli. Israeliness is a culture that’s so specific that if you haven’t lived in Israel you’ll have a hard time playing an Israeli.”

'Israelis are like cartoon characters'

Singer, who played an important role in the Oslo Accords and is one of the few people involved who has also seen the play, was a lot more direct.

“All the Israeli representatives looked like cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Israeli characters are all distorted,” he said. “It bothered me personally that they were using the names of people I know and attributing characteristics to them that they don’t have. They portray Uri Savir as an Israeli lowlife or furniture mover who barely finished elementary school. Yossi Beilin, who speaks in the most understated fashion I’ve ever seen, is portrayed as someone who yells all the time. Shimon Peres is portrayed in a way that reminds me of a Tuvia Tzafir imitation. Yair Hirshfeld and Ron Pundak were turned into a pair of clowns.”

And what about you?

“They turned me into a caricature, too,” said Singer. “Everyone who knows me knows I don’t yell, I don’t curse and I don’t bang on the table with my fists. Apparently the imaginations of the writer and the director turned me into the Hollywood stereotype of a lawyer. The truth is that during the Oslo negotiations, the various representatives never raised their voices. The talks were tense and dramatic because they were dealing with existential issues. But the play exaggerates the characters and their behavior and turned them into characters that scream and yell.

“The punch that Uri Savir gave to Yair Hirshfeld never happened,” he continued. “Nor did Palestinian delegate Hassan Asfour ever push Larsen to the floor, as seen in the play. The only one not presented as a caricature was Abu Alaa [Ahmed Qurei]. He was portrayed as the good guy in the group, like the noble savage from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ that Western leftists love to admire.

“So while the play was enjoyable, I wouldn’t want to instill hopes in the hearts of innocent people who might think that that’s how the Oslo talks were conducted and that’s how peace talks in general are conducted,” Singer said.

Responding to criticism over the factual accuracy of his play, J.T. Rogers said he read huge amounts of material about the Oslo negotiations, including books written by nearly all of the participants in the talks. Rogers added that he went with Larsen to the site of the talks to get a sense of the atmosphere.

Rogers claimed that the facts presented in the play are true but admitted that there may be differences between the characters in the play and in real life. Theater, he said, is not a history lesson.

Rogers said he decided not to meet with most of the participants in the talks because, as he put it, the work of a playwright is to tell a story as he sees it and to be the one to shape the writing process. Theater, he added, turns the real story into a something more extreme, something sexier and funnier than reality.

Putting real life on the stage, Rogers said, would be rather boring. The playwright of "Oslo" noted that even the kings in William Shakespeare's plays weren't so bad in real life, and if Shakespeare could do it, he, Rogers, is in good company.

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