Film Review: The Oslo Diaries

Devastating, resonant documentary account of the secret 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks succeeds by sticking with its subject well past the flashbulb-signing ceremony.
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The documentary The Oslo Diaries doesn’t waste much time with setting viewers up with background before jumping into its story. That is a smart move on the part of directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan. Because even though this might leave some viewers adrift at first, the daunting prospect of providing the necessary amount of context would have necessitated an entirely separate movie. As it is, the directors already have enough on their plate, trying to tell the story of both the tangled, start-stop years of the Oslo peace process and the rise of nationalist forces in Israel and Hamas in Palestine in a mere hour and a half. They succeed, but just barely.

As with Loushy’s acclaimed 2015 documentary Censored Voices, which was based on government-censored audio recordings of soldiers that undercut the official narrative of the Six-Day War, The Oslo Diaries is built around a cache of never-before-seen material. First is a trove of footage shot during the negotiations between 1992 and 1995 and second is the actual diaries from the participants themselves. The directors use readings from those part-anguished and part-hopeful diaries, along with contemporaneous and new interviews, to create the narrative spine, while the visuals comprise a mix of actual and recreated footage that ultimately become difficult to tell apart.

Even without the secret footage, the story of the Oslo Accords remains one of the great tales of modern diplomacy and statesmanship. Starting in 1992, Yossi Beilin, Shimon Peres’ deputy minister of foreign affairs, opened up an incredibly risky, unsanctioned secret back channel of negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). To maximize deniability, Beilin sent no diplomats but a pair of professors—Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak—to meet with three Palestinians from Tunis—Abu Ala, Maher El-Kurd and Hassan Asfour—at a remote villa in the forests outside Oslo.

The movie’s first half-hour details those initially tentative then increasingly warm negotiations. Abu Ala notes that “the idea of meeting our occupiers…did not appeal to me,” while Hirschfeld acknowledges that they were sitting down with their “sworn enemies.” At the time, Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wouldn’t speak to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Israel labeled the entire PLO a terrorist organization while the PLO refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and a bloody intifada was ripping both Israel and the Occupied Territories apart. According to The Oslo Diaries, the five men were able to start the then-nonexistent peace process grinding forward based on their desire to put aside the wounds of the past and present and focus on a better future for their children. (The role of the Norwegian facilitators, the stars of J.T. Rogers’ 2016 Tony-winning play Oslo, is ignored here and probably rightly so.)

Peres, appearing here in the last interview he gave before his death in 2016, recalls not being too impressed with the first meeting’s plan: “I didn’t take it seriously—[there is] no place in the world with so many plans and so few results” as the Middle East. But momentum grew after the talks’ existence was leaked to the press. “We were trying to beat the clock,” says Joel Singer, who came on as Israel’s legal adviser. Another pressure came from back home, where the tit-for-tat violence that was spurring the negotiators to start a plan for peace was hardening attitudes against talking, even though, as Rabin said at the time, “you make peace with your enemies, not your friends.” Meanwhile, “each side feared the reaction of their people,” one voice says with dark ominousness.

The best-remembered moment of the Oslo Accords is the September 1993 White House signing, with Rabin and Arafat memorably hugged together by a beaming Bill Clinton, of a framework plan. That itself was momentous, in that Israel was for the first time recognizing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians and the PLO was finally acknowledging Israel’s right to exist. But in one of the directors’ most intelligent moves, that occurs just a half-hour in.

Over the next increasingly raw and dramatic hour, The Oslo Diaries records the years of further negotiations in which the sides inched ever closer together in a less visually resplendent hotel in Egypt. While they haggled over maps, whether Israel should withdraw to pre-1967 borders immediately or gradually and what to do with the settlements, a series of catastrophic events kneecapped the process. The 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers by an Israeli settler in Hebron and the cycle of revenge suicide bombings and Israeli crackdowns made it politically difficult for Israel to withdraw from that West Bank city. Israeli right-wing politicians mobilized against the peace process, elevating a rising star in Benjamin Netanyahu, who emerges here as a fiery denunciator of Rabin and Peres. Meanwhile, Hamas grew in strength while Arafat, who comes off here as far more tentative about the process than Rabin, was burned in effigy by Palestinians. The movie’s early optimism, filtered through the first negotiators’ wry but hopeful humor, is drowned out by the darkly tragic scope of Rabin’s 1995 killing at a massive peace rally in Tel Aviv. “They have assassinated the peace process,” Arafat said afterward.

Dramatically constructed and studded with sharp, thoughtful points of view,The Oslo Diaries nevertheless falls down on one point. The movie doesn’t get as much sunlight into the PLO viewpoint on the process, focusing almost exclusively on Israeli domestic politics. This could have been for simple lack of access, but given that many earlier observers have tended to point the finger at Arafat’s tentativeness as being what ultimately killed Oslo, a deeper look at his side of the equation would have been useful. Nevertheless, this remains a powerful historical document and an aching echo of what could have been.

The Oslo Diaries opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 24 and debuts on HBO on Sept. 13.