After seeing The Oslo Diaries at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I felt inspired to start keeping a diary of my own. The Sundance-selected documentary, directed by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, tells the tense and moving story of the secret 1992 peace talks and their tragic failure, using interviews, reenactments, and primary sources to give us a holistic perspective on the historical moment. I recommend you see it too.
The film is named quite literally, as much of the film’s dialogue is taken directly from the diaries of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators of the Oslo Accords. And while their journal entries aren’t in literal conversation, they do provide the inner dialogue of some of the story’s most important characters — and frequently overlap in their subject matter, like two sides of the same coin. Without a doubt, the film holds great emotional power, and even, at one point, brought me to tears. Despite the diaries’ centrality to that power, however, the filmmakers fail to realize their practical and symbolic significance. Ultimately, the film paints a beautiful picture, but misses an opportunity to create something more meaningful, condemning itself to the same fate as the Oslo Accords.
The film opens during the First Intifada, playing archival footage of Palestinian youth throwing stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers carrying automatic rifles –a sight American audiences are now familiar with. We are introduced first to the Israelis, when then-Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin approaches the peace-seeking academics Ron Pundak (whose niece, Maya Pundak, was in attendance at the East Bay premiere) and Yair Hirschfeld with a proposition: to, in secret, establish relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Oslo, Norway, even though getting caught would mean the death penalty, as the Israeli government did not want the negative publicity of sanctioning official talks with Palestine before they even made contact.
Once contact is made, Israel quickly sends in Uri Savir to negotiate with Ahmed Qurei of Palestine (who goes by his kunya Abu Ala in the film) and begin working on the basics of a deal to achieve peace. After initial negotiations between Ala and Savir devolve, the two come to several terms of agreement for conducting future negotiations, primary among them a prohibition on arguments about the past. While there is wisdom in turning one’s gaze toward the future, however, worse than forgetting the past entirely, the filmmakers are selective in what they remember. They make the contributions of PLO Leader Yasser Arafat to terrorist attacks on Israel abundantly clear, but the only concession they afford to the other side is Abu Ala’s description of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as an “oppressor”; unmentioned are Rabin’s personal responsibility for the forced expulsion of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the villages of Lydda and Ramle in 1948, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’s crucial support of settlements in the West Bank –both of which created obstacles on the path to peace.
The film does succeed in capturing the violent oppression of the settlements, epitomized in the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in which Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish settler in Hebron, opened fire on Muslim worshippers, murdering dozens and wounding hundreds. Likewise, it captures the horror of terrorist attacks on Israel, including the Dizengoff Street bus bombing by Hamas, which left 22 civilians dead.
It is worth noting, however, given that it is an Israeli production, that the film still privileges Israeli voices over Palestinian ones, both in number and in speaking time. While the Israelis we hear from are generally peace-minded and acknowledge some criticisms of Israel, their perspectives, like all of ours, are biased and demand adequate balance. Israel already had a tactical advantage in the negotiations themselves, which becomes clear throughout the film. In an interview with Joel Singer, Israel’s chief legal adviser in the talks, Singer even admits that Israel held the power to “just say no” over the heads of their Palestinian adversaries at all times.
While the interviews are insightful, and even provide some levity (including the interview with Shimon Peres, which was the last of his life and was apparently fraught by his representatives’ worries that he was saying too much, according to producer Hilla Medalia), the film’s greatest revelations –whether the filmmakers realize it or not –come from the diaries themselves.
Among other things, the diaries show us the strained but genuine and tender nature of the friendship between Abu Ala and Uri Savir, though their true value is in their figurative message. Finding privacy, whether through a diary or secret meetings, is vital to nurturing one’s capacity for honesty, with others and with themselves; cynical as it is, the movie provides ample evidence for the way dialogue devolves when brought to a massive audience, such as the Israeli and Palestinian public. Even though polls showed about two-thirds initial approval of the accords among both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, extremism can (and did) prevail if it is not adequately addressed. Privacy allows misunderstandings to be understood, rather than punished.
Everyone involved in the Oslo Accords (and, we can presume, the filmmakers themselves) clearly had a genuine desire for a bilateral, peaceful two-state solution; the failure of both the negotiators and the filmmakers, however, despite the film’s underlying message of honesty (intentional or not), is that they could not be honest about just how much Israel in particular had contributed to obstacles in the way of peace. Such honesty with oneself and with others is the first step toward peace, as without it one cannot see what peace truly requires.
And so while the documentary accurately reflects the ways in which the Israeli Right and Benjamin Netanyahu (whose every appearance on screen drew hisses from the audience) derailed the peace process, it does not reflect the ways in which Rabin deferred to (or even actively nurtured) their warmongering. Ultimately, whether he was prepared for it or not, Rabin’s commitment to peace cost him his life. But despite the Likud Party’s murderous opposition to Rabin and his peacemaking efforts, Rabin did not resist them as fiercely as the film would have you believe. He is portrayed as a hero in his last moments at the Israeli rally for peace, but his earlier speeches rousing distrust for Palestinians and his uneven responses to Israeli and Palestinian terrorism tell a story left untold by Loushy and Sivan.
It’s a tall task for any single work –especially a 90-minute documentary –to fairly and accurately represent the entire historical context of any point in the relationship between Israel and Palestine. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try to. The Oslo Diaries captures the aftermath of the accords and the feelings during that time well; one really feels the gravity of reality as Joel Singer tells us he has given up hope for peace in his lifetime, and the heartbreak is palpable in the voice of Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi as she describes the failure of the accords.
But what the film fails to do is tell us, fully, how it got to that point. More than just compromise, negotiation,and especially negotiation for peace,is about sacrifice: the act of forsaking your own interest for another. For Israel, that meant giving up the settlements. For Palestine, that meant putting more resources toward stopping terror (though whether they had the resources is another question). So sacrifice was something that, to a degree, both sides –but especially Israel –did not do.
Genuine human connection and recognition is vital to negotiation and peacemaking of any sort — in fact, the ability to connect with and understand strangers is one of humanity’s greatest defining features. But instead of then asking what concrete actions each side ought to have taken toward peace, the documentary seems to be satisfied with capturing just that recognition. Indeed, the formal recognition of each side by the other ended up being the sole, ephemeral achievement of the accords.