Sundance 2018: The Oslo Diaries outstanding documentary journalism looking behind the scenes at Israeli-Palestinian peace process

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Impossibility is a product of our prejudice. — Shimon Peres 1923-2016, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

In The Oslo Diaries, an outstanding film of documentary-style journalism which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Shimon Peres, former president and prime minister of Israel, said he was still optimistic that a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the scale of The Oslo Accords that were signed in the 1990s could be achieved. It would be Peres’ last interview before he died – the last of his generation that was instrumental in the founding of Israel 70 years ago.

Yitzhak Rabin, Yasir Arafat and Shimon Peres conferring after the three were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: Saar Yaacov.

“There are plenty of documentaries about war but we wanted to make one about peace,” Daniel Sivan, says in an interview with The Utah Review, which also included his co-director Mor Loushy. The directors spent their formative years during that period but now today with children of their own and with their lives in Tel Aviv, they believe the same objectives of peace which constituted the agreements are achievable.

But, as both emphasize in their comments during the interview, that would have to be determined by the willingness of Israeli voters to elect officials who had the foresight of Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords but was assassinated shortly after a massive pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv. The events also are captured in the film.

Loushy and Sivan’s Censored Voices, which focused on the Six-Day War in 1967, premiered at Sundance in 2015. In 2018, they offer a film that will be an important piece for geopolitical scholars, as The Oslo Diaries distills and summarizes the personal diaries of the small group of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who convened in 1992 to conduct secret talks that ultimately led to both sets of agreements comprising The Oslo Accords.

Photo Credit: Medalia Productions.

It would become the definitive case study of backchannel diplomacy. The directors make vivid the circumstances of why these secret talks were so risky. In 1992, relations between the two parties had reached a nadir. But, the parties also risked breaking Israeli law because if the unsanctioned negotiations were discovered, they could face imprisonment on treasonous charges.

The diaries of the negotiators, representing more than 1,100 days of talks, had never been discussed publicly, prior to the making of this film. They reveal the full spectrum of emotions for both parties, ranging from distrust and anger to skepticism and resignation and finally to friendliness and genuine motivation to reach an agreement. It becomes one of the most intriguing explorations of how diplomacy in a conflict widely perceived as hopelessly reconcilable is cultivated and nurtured to achieve pragmatic progress that can be implemented for mutual benefit.

“When we read the first two pages of Ron Pundak’s diary [an Israeli professor who was one of the negotiators], we knew immediately that we had to make the film,” Loushy says, adding that “this was a jackpot.”

Photo Credit: Medalia Productions.

There was a precedent for secret backdoor negotiations. In the 1980s, Peres had negotiated a secret agreement with King Hussein of Jordan in London that would have emphasized collaborative initiatives in education and economic development. However, that agreement evaporated when Yitzak Shamir, then the Israeli prime minister, refused to sign it.

Great care was taken to provide a good cover for the talks that initiated The Oslo Accords process. Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak, university professors, were recruited to begin the process on behalf of the Israelis. They were joined by three Palestinians including Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), who later would become prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority. The film features footage of interviews with the principal negotiators, along with narrated excerpts from the diaries, as read by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Hirschfeld and Pundak went to Oslo, supposedly for an academic conference. Not one detail was missed. Pamphlets were produced for the fictitious conference but the scholars understood that if their cover was revealed, they would face criminal prosecution.

Photo Credit: Medalia Productions.

Loushy and Sivan capture an overall portrait, which summarizes quite effectively that even in the face of distrust, hesitation and resentment about pervasive injustices, the negotiators understood that, as Peres once said in an interview, “playing hard-to-get may be a romantic proposition, but it’s not a good political plan.”

Not perfect and inconclusive on many other issues including the status of Jerusalem, The Oslo Accords, however, had broken the deadlocked status in several notable ways, starting with mutual recognition of an Israeli and Palestinian state. Yasir Arafat, the former chair of the Palestinian National Organization (who died in 2004), could return to Gaza after a long period of exile in Tunis and lead an interim government while preparations were made for elections. Israel would begin withdrawing from Gaza and Jericho and the new Palestinian National Authority would strike passages from its founding charter that called for the extinction of the Israeli state.

The agreements were signed in September of 1983, and their culmination would lead to Peres, Rabin and Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. In watching The Oslo Diaries, one is struck by the evidence of just how close a sustainable peace was within everyone’s grasp. But, Loushy and Sivan astutely convey also just how firebrand politics stalled and derailed The Oslo Accords. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian activist and legislator, was skeptical of the agreement’s impact. She was a protégé of the late Edward Said (not in the film), who called The Oslo Accords, “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.”

The domestic political scene in Israel ignited in massive rallies both for and against the agreement. The opposition was led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who today serves once again as prime minister, as seen in footage in the film. After Rabin’s assassination on Nov. 4, 1995, elections in the following spring brought Netanyahu and the right-wing Likud Party. There is no doubt after watching the film just how Netanyahu’s unabashed antagonism permanently stalled The Oslo Accords.

The filmmakers hope the documentary strikes emotionally to the hearts and conscience of their fellow citizens in Israel, strong enough to motivate them to gain the political will to recapture the essence that led to The Oslo Accords. Polls taken some 20 years after the agreements were signed suggest that The Oslo Accords still represent the best option to renew the process. A 2015 poll, for example, taken by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that while nine out of 10 Palestinians do not trust Israel for following the terms of the agreement, more than two-thirds still believe it important to support the Accords.

The Oslo Diaries is a Medalia Productions film produced in association with Yes Docu, RBB/ARTE, Radio Canada, and Substans Films. The Oslo Diaries also was one of the Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship projects.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

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