This evening, on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, a 90-minute documentary about the historic 1993 agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians will air on HBO, targeting an American audience.
Directed by Israeli filmmakers Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, Oslo Diaries is an Israeli-Canadian co-production, backed by several European film funds, as is typical for this sort of Israeli production.
The film claims to feature “never-before-seen” footage shot by the negotiators themselves, which is not true, but this is hardly its main problem. What is really problematic about this documentary is that it claims to be an in-depth historical account of the Oslo negotiations, even though it is actually telling the story of the rise and fall of the Israeli Labour Party between 1992-1996, from the party’s point of view.
Back then, Israeli Labour was trying to rebrand itself as the party of peace, in contrast to the anti-peace Likud Party. It was pushing forward a narrative in which Israel was an “oasis of democracy” open to peace. Oslo Diaries repeats this delusional narrative while ignoring the real story of Oslo, which – alas – is not even known to most Arabs.
I was interested in this documentary because I spent two years of my life – 2012 and 2013 – studying the story of Oslo. I read just about everything written on it by Palestinians, Israelis and Norwegians. I tracked down the participants in the secret talks. I filmed in the places where they met in Norway. I obtained never-before-seen archives and documents. I did this to produce my 90-minute film, The Price of Oslo, which was released exactly 5 years ago on the 20th anniversary of the Oslo accords. In my film, I dug deep to tell the real story of Oslo, from its germination in the 1970s, up to its signing in 1993.
Oslo Diaries, however, offers a warped and distinctly Israeli point of view on the accords. Here are the 10 most blatant historical distortions and misrepresentations in the documentary.
1. The documentary claims that the secret Oslo talks were not “officially sanctioned by any party.” This is not true. They were designed to look “unofficial,” but were fully funded by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Then-Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg (who passed away this summer) personally supervised the talks and chose the Norwegian team of facilitators himself: His sister-in-law Marianne Heiberg, his deputy in the ministry, Jan Egeland, his assistant, Mona Juul, and Juul’s husband, Terje Rød-Larsen, who headed FAFO – the research centre that hosted the negotiations. When a new minister of foreign affairs was appointed midway into the talks, it was none other than Stoltenberg’s brother-in-law, Johan Jørgen Holst, who had previously held the role of minister of defence. The rest of the Norwegian team remained intact.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his deputy, Yossi Beilin, had chosen the two Israeli negotiators – historians Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak – and supervised them closely.
Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of the #OsloAccords. Was it a success or failure for the post-Oslo generation?
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 12, 2018
When Holst took over, the negotiations were upgraded to include Uri Savir, director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, and an American-Israeli lawyer for the Israeli army, Joel Singer, who was in constant contact with Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The three Palestinian negotiators were Ahmed Qurei, Hasan Asfour and Maher Al-Kurd, and they were officially representing the Palestine Liberation Organization (sent from the offices of Arafat and his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas). When Al-Kurd withdrew during the process, Mohammad Abu Kosh took his place.
2. The film pushes the Israeli myth that Oslo was merely a “coincidence”, which came into being with no prior thought or planning. The process that led to Oslo accords started in 1979 when Arafat asked Norwegian diplomat Hans Wilhelm Longva for his country to create a direct, secret line of communication between the PLO and Israel. Since then, Norway had been trying to create the conduit, but Israel was not ready.
The details of the Oslo talks had been agreed by the foreign ministry of Norway in 1989, in a Palestinian-Norwegian meeting in Tunis. There were serious efforts under way in 1990-1992 to choose the negotiators and find a suitable cover. Arafat secretly sent Bassam Abu Sharif to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in 1992 to promise that the PLO would work to end the “Arab economic boycott of Israel” if a deal was reached. This is documented in the previously unpublished minutes of a meeting at the ministry (I was the first to bring them to light in my 2013 film).
There was also a meeting between Stoltenberg and Peres in New York in September 1992, where the two agreed that “the time was ripe” to hold direct talks. This was reported by Longva, who gave me one of the last interviews on the subject before he died in 2013. He had known Arafat since the 1970s, and upon the request of the Norwegian foreign minister, had introduced Larsen to Arafat and Qurei (known as Abu Alaa) in Tunis in December 1992.
3. The film discounts the influential – and pro-Israeli – role Norway played in the negotiations. The filmmakers did not include a single Norwegian interview in the film or allude to Norway’s presence at the negotiating table, even though it was Norwegian memos and research papers – especially the research of Norwegian historian Hilde Waage – that exposed what was really going on. Waage documented how the Norwegians (especially Larsen, his wife Mona and Holst) were transmitting every minute detail about what the Palestinians were willing to give up to the Israeli side.
Soon after the signing of the Oslo accords, Larsen was promoted from the head of a research centre to the UN Special Coordinator in the Occupied Territories, at the rank of under-secretary-general, and his wife was promoted from the secretariat of the foreign ministry to Norway’s ambassador to Israel. Larsen and his wife later received a $100,000 award from The Peres Center for Peace in Israel.
Norway had long been one of the biggest supporters of Israel in Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s, most Norwegian parliamentarians were part of the Friends of Israel in the Norwegian Labour Movement, because there were old, strategic ties between the Norwegian Labour Movement and Israel’s Labour Party, some dating back to the 1940s.
4. The film did not mention that the Americans were watching what was going on in Oslo closely. The Norwegians used the secure phone lines of the US embassy in Oslo to brief officials in Washington about the secret talks in February, March and April 1993. Stoltenberg had presented a first draft of what had been achieved in Oslo so far to his US counterpart, Warren Christopher, by the spring of 1993.
5. The film neglects to mention that, parallel to Oslo, official negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians were under way in Washington. These talks were between the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and the Israeli delegation and during these talks, which took place between 1991 and 1993, chief negotiator Haidar Abdul Shafi had laid out the foundation for peace: ending occupation and settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
6. The film stresses that at the time “Palestinian terrorism” posed the most serious obstacle to negotiations, with Palestinian “terrorists” repeatedly blowing things up and killing dozens of innocent people. However, it claims Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians were carried out by “enemies of peace”.
7. The documentary makes the audacious claim that the Oslo accords guaranteed Palestinian control over “most of” the West Bank land within a year.
8. The film uses reconstructions, in which actors play Oslo negotiators, without clearly indicating that they are not archive materials. This is an ethically questionable decision in a film marketed as a documentary. Moreover, the Norwegians are once again curiously absent in these scenes.
9. The film does not make it clear that Oslo was an amazing victory for the Israeli side, which won on every level: economic, diplomatic and international. Israel continues to reap the rewards of this theatrical production to this day. Oslo guaranteed the continued presence of settlements and settlers. Today’s “deal of the century” is the natural evolution of Oslo, following the golden years of settlement expansion. Moreover, Oslo indefinitely deferred any negotiations on Jerusalem, borders, security, and the crux of the matter – the refugees.
10. The film neglects many of the pain points of the Palestinian side. It does not mention, for example, the seven-hour phone conference in August 1993. On the line were Norwegian Foreign Minister Holst and his team alongside Israeli Foreign Minister Peres and his team (who were together in Stockholm), and Arafat who was in Tunis with Abbas (Abu Mazen), Abu Alaa, Asfour, Yasser Abed Rabbo and a Lebanese friend, Mohsin Ibrahim. All of the sticking points from the previous months were resolved in that call and the signing of the declaration of principles was guaranteed.
Oslo Diaries is not the first warped documentary effort on Oslo, and it won’t be the last. European and Arab TV channels produced countless maligned films about the deal. Theatrical plays about it were staged in New York and London. These productions find a fan base in the West.
Oslo makes for great mythology: A Norwegian dynamic duo (Larsen and Juul) sacrificing everything and summoning all their God-given talents to make peace in the Middle East!
Waage, the Norwegian historian, makes a good point: Why is there no Norwegian paper trail of what happened in the talks? Why hasn’t FAFO, represented by Larsen, surrendered all the documents, minutes and memos to the Norwegian foreign ministry, which appointed him to the job and paid all the expenses of the secret negotiations? The fact that this archive is off-limits is suspicious. How can it be that Larsen can keep this treasure trove to himself, as part of his personal property?
The myths about Oslo, like the ones pushed in Oslo Diaries, must be confronted. The Israeli narrative must be expunged from the collective Arab and international mind. The facts should be clear to all. The Palestinians cannot afford to lose this battle of narratives.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.