Rød­-Larsen on Oslo: Sometimes It’s Easier to Do the Impossible

“Everyone is scrambling around trying to do the possible,” said IPI President Terje Rød­-Larsen while reflecting on how an unlikely peace agreement, the Oslo peace accords, was forged between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993. Sometimes it’s easier to do the impossible, he said, “because you have the whole field to yourself.”

Mr. Rød-Larsen’s comment came during his conversation with OSLO playwright J.T. Rogers and OSLO director Barlett Sher, where they discussed the Oslo negotiations, the origins and development of the play, the challenges of dramatizing historical events, and the relevance of the Oslo process to the realities of today’s Middle East.

In response to a question about windows for peace between Israel and the Palestinians today, Mr. Rød-Larsen said successful talks could only come through involvement from regional players. “I do believe that if you broaden talks, and you bring in the broader region, there is a possibility.”

He cited the Madrid conference of 1991 as a possible formula. “In the Madrid conference, you didn’t only have Palestinians and Israeli representatives—you had representatives in the same room with the Israelis from basically the whole Arab world, including Saudis, Emirates, Kuwaitis, together with the key western countries.”

While forging the Oslo accords, which at first took place in secret, Mr. Rød-Larsen credits the trust developed with people living together, eating together, and getting to know each other’s families—and ultimately becoming friends—as at the “heart of the agreement.”

“We managed to keep it secret because it was beyond anyone’s imagination,” he said.

Describing his experience as a major figure in the real life drama at the center of OSLO, he said that from the beginning of the negotiations of the Oslo accords, there were two goals. These were “that the parties believe that both sides, in good faith sought an agreement, not through institutions but through individuals” he said, and “to understand that it was possible to reach an arrangement.”

This also provides ideal fodder for dramatization, and drew Mr. Rogers to want to adapt the story.

“What’s rather fascinating is that unlike anything else I’ve written, the main events are all agreed on by the major parties, which is extraordinary.” Mr. Rogers said, “That became a launching pad for the play.”

“This is a story of people who take the leap to sit across from their mortal enemy and force themselves to see their humanity. And that is profoundly human but also entertaining,” he said.

The show’s director, Bartlett Sher, agreed. OSLO exists at the “weird intersection of theater and international relations,” he said. “Audiences don’t always know the story very well, so partly in theater we have to educate them through it.”

With a three hour runtime, the challenge is “reflecting a very intense process, speedily and allowing audiences to track into this process and become part of the peace process themselves,” he said.

Mr. Sher said good theater artists “don’t come to conclusions, we pose better questions.”

He concluded, “If we believe in any part of it, it’s that there is a hope, and a hope that agreements can come.”

OSLO played a sold­ out run last summer at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, and Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times, called it “a vivid, thoughtful, and astonishingly lucid account of a byzantine chapter in international politics.”

The play tells the story of how Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul and Mr. Rød­-Larsen planned and orchestrated top­ secret, high ­level meetings in Norway between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The talks culminated in the historic 1993 Oslo Accords, which were officially signed at a White House ceremony in the presence of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and US President Bill Clinton.

IPI Vice President Adam Lupel moderated the discussion.

The event was co-hosted with the Lincoln Center Theater and OSLO on Broadway.