The day after the 1993 Rabin-Arafat handshake, I shook Yasser Arafat’s hand myself at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The luncheon where I and several hundred journalists met Arafat was among the flurry of engagements he attended at the time. On the dais, the American and National Press Club flags flanked the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) flag. The Israeli flag was missing, as was Yitzhak Rabin, who declined the Press Club’s invitation.
As for Arafat, when he walked into the National Press Club he was close enough for me to see his trademark stubble. He wore his standard olive drab fatigues, but his trademark pistol was nowhere to be seen. He was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation. When the crowd quieted down, Arafat said he was eager to leave the past behind. “I do not want to return to the old stories. We are starting a new chapter,” he said.
Arafat said that signing the Oslo Accords meant he was imploring Hamas and others to stop the violence. As I listened to him, I almost forgot he was once the most despised of Israel’s enemies. On that day in the Press Club, I could overlook the symbolism of his checkerboard kaffiyeh deliberately arranged over his balding head in the shape of the Palestine he had always envisioned. I might have even found it difficult to believe that less than a decade later, the PLO would not only finance a new spate of terrorism, but also support the Palestinian teenagers blowing themselves up to murder Israeli civilians.
“We have the right to dream,” Arafat told his audience. “But it is not easy to implement on the ground what we are dreaming.” Thinking about Arafat in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War sent me back to my notes from that day. I recorded that although there had been a signed peace accord, neither party had been able to reach any agreement on Jerusalem. There was only the vague notion that the debate over the holy city had to be postponed.
The Oslo Accords are, of course, long broken. And two distinct narratives about Jerusalem continue to emerge on this anniversary—one of unification and one of occupation. I won’t pontificate on the region’s convoluted politics here. As JewishBoston’s culture reporter, I’m more interested in stories, and the story leading up to the failed accords is brilliantly chronicled in a new play called “Oslo,” playing at Lincoln Center in New York City.
The play centers on the Norwegian couple who initiated the secret talks that led to the Rabin-Arafat handshake. Mona Juul was an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and Terje Rod-Larsen was the director of a social-science institute in Oslo. As depicted in the play, the couple played genial hosts to the various officials and diplomats who secretly developed and shaped the accords in Oslo. The play begins with a dinner, which is interrupted by two phone calls that come in at the same time. Israel is on one line and the PLO is on the other. In the next breath, Rod-Larsen reveals his far-fetched plan to bring these two enemies together to work out their differences.
The events preceding those simultaneous calls happen over dinners and teas at Juul and Rod-Larsen’s home, transforming their dining room into a veritable bargaining table. Throughout the three-hour play, it becomes obvious that over the course of nine months, getting Israel and the Palestinians to sit down together and simply talk is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. Yet the backstage machinations of getting the Oslo Accords signed and the two sworn foes to shake hands are almost as riveting and momentous as the history of the actual event.
“Oslo” works so well because story and relationships are front and center. The play is studded with humorous moments that include characters doing dead-on imitations of Rabin, Arafat and Shimon Peres. It highlights two hapless functionaries arguing over who will be responsible for taxes and garbage collection in the post-Oslo Accords world. The question not only reflects the potentially scrambled logistics of Palestinians and Israelis living together, but also shows how mundane realities affect larger issues. Should this peace process have been initiated at all? What measures should be used to judge whether the quest for peace was a success or a failure?
After the Press Club luncheon, I rode the elevator down to my office with a photographer who declared that “the Rabin-Arafat handshake was the picture of the decade.” At the end of “Oslo” the play, the audience is privy to the fact that unlike the Oslo Accords, many of the players who participated in the peace process continued their friendships with their counterparts. I daresay that is as close to any sort of peace that either side has thus far achieved.