Oslo optimism is now well and truly dead

A week in Jerusalem brought added poignancy

September 27, 2017 19:26

The coincidence was unintentional, but a few days after returning from Jerusalem last week I saw the (wonderful) new production of Oslo at the National Theatre.

It might sound decidedly untheatrical: a blow-by-blow account of the origins and development of the Oslo peace process in 1993. But in the hands of playwright JT Rogers, it is three hours of riveting drama.

And it is far more than that.

I confess that as we reached the denouement, with footage of Rabin and Arafat at the White House, some tears ran down my cheeks. The promise of peace turned out to be naïve nonsense — and a lie, as the Palestinians refused to honour the accords and an Israeli extremist murdered Rabin.

As the lead character puts it in Michael Frayn’s film, Clockwise: “It’s not the despair… I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

Here we are now, over two decades later, and the hope and optimism for any sort of serious path to peace is well and truly dead.

I’m not even talking about grand schemes — deals brokered by superpowers, or facilitated by the likes of Norway. I mean just the modest, practical day-to-day steps towards peaceful co-existence championed by Palestinians such as Salam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, whose approach was fatally undermined by his own supposed colleagues — and so would have failed even had he found a more receptive Israeli response.

Oslo is poignant enough on those terms, as a reminder of what we once thought might be possible, without the added layer brought by my trip to Jerusalem.

I was there for a great occasion: a conference for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, marked by the opening of the Sir Naim Dangoor Centre on Anglo-Israeli relations, in the historic Mishkenot Sha’ananim centre.

But while the conference was splendid and insightful and the centre a much-needed new institution, the rest of my time was spent getting steadily more depressed.

I met friends and contacts on all sides of the Israeli political spectrum. But I heard only one story from them all: that there is no longer either the appetite or the opportunity for any kind of “progress” with the Palestinians. On their side, the only move is further towards extremism and entrenched dogma. And in Israel, I was told repeatedly by both left, right and centre figures, the mood is now firmly set in a kind of resigned acceptance that the best that can be hoped for is prolongation of the status quo.

None of this will surprise anyone who follows Israeli politics, even from the outside. But it’s always more striking when you hear it on the ground.

As was the comparison I heard made between Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump — a specific comparison, pointing out that the Israeli leader is now taking campaigning lessons from the Trump playbook. That means, for instance, holding a rally in which Mr Netanyahu attacked the press as the enemy — a cheap, nasty, divisive but nonetheless, as President Trump has shown, effective tactic.

Of course on most levels Israel is better off, busier and more settled than ever before. Its economy is thriving, it is a wonderful place in which to live and visit, and it remains a miracle as it approaches its 70th birthday.

Which is why, perhaps, the other side of the picture is still more depressing.

September 27, 2017 19:26

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