Oslo Accords Reminiscences
HBO’s “Oslo” and Me
On May 29th, HBO premiered a new film – “Oslo” – based on J. T. Rogers’ Broadway Tony award-winning play by the same name. The movie tells the story of how PLO and Israeli representatives – myself included – met secretly in Norway in 1993 and negotiated the Oslo Agreement. Watching oneself being portrayed on screen or stage is a bizarre experience, made more so by the “Joel Singer” character’s portrayal of me – which is quite different than the real me.
Readers of this blog are likely familiar with my career as a negotiator of Middle East peace agreements, such as the Oslo Accords. Fewer, however, are aware of my relationship with the entertainment world. My father, Gideon Singer, was a famous actor, singer and comedian. As a young boy, I intended to follow in my father’s footsteps as an actor, but subsequently changed course to become a lawyer, a military officer, and then a diplomat. Yet, ultimately, my dream has come full circle: a fictionalized version of “Joel Singer” has taken to the stage on Broadway and around the world, and is now on the silver screen – just where I wanted to be in the first place.
Growing Up in the Theater World
Growing up in Israel, as a child whose father’s job was in the theater, I spent countless days and nights watching rehearsals and shows, absorbing the sights and sounds, and imitating what I saw for my amused family members, friends and neighbors. According to family stories, my first private performance occurred when I was just three or four years old. It consisted of me singing and dancing the song “Yokohama Mama” from Paul Abraham’s operetta, “Victoria and her Hussar,” in which my father appeared. In the play, this silly song was sung by a Hungarian Count and his Japanese bride on their wedding day in Tokyo. You can listen to this song by clicking here. Even today, more than 65 years later, I still remember the nonsensical lyrics and the jazzy music of this song and can sing it at the drop of a hat. The song’s refrain (with some adjustments for English rhyming purposes) goes like this:
Comes from Yokohama
My papa is from Paris
My mama dresses in pajamas
Because papa has asked her: Please!
No wonder that as a young kid I was determined to become an actor myself. In high school, I joined an elective theater class, which put on a production of “Peer Gynt” – a play written by the famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen – in which I played the Mountain King (also known as the Troll King). My entrance to the stage was always accompanied by Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt’s Suite No. 1, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Little did I know then that one day my name would become associated permanently with Ibsen’s home country and its capital – Oslo.
As I grew up, my father’s theater career advanced and he began obtaining leading roles, culminating with his portrayal of Don Quixote in the musical “Man of La Mancha.” After his successful performance in this musical in Tel Aviv, my father was invited to play the same role in theaters in Austria, Germany, and finally on Broadway at the Martin Beck theater. The New York staging originally starred Richard Kiley, followed by Jose Ferrer, Jacques Brel, and then by my father.
After playing in numerous shows and movies in Israel, my father, whose mother tongue was German, relocated to Austria, where he became a permanent ensemble member of the Theater in der Josefstadt, the oldest still performing theater in Vienna.
International Law Career and the Oslo Accords
While it was clear to me as a kid that when I grew up I would be an actor, as the years passed I drifted away from that path, instead setting my eyes on becoming a lawyer, eventually specializing in international law.
Ultimately, I became the Director of the International Law Department in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Judge Advocate General Corps and, subsequently, Legal Adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry – becoming the only person to serve in both of those high-level international law-focused positions. In these roles, I participated in Israeli delegations that negotiated peace treaties and other agreements with all of Israel’s Arab neighbors, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and with the Palestinians. As for the Palestinians, working in 1993-96 for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, I negotiated with the PLO and drafted all of the Oslo Accords, including the Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement and the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (the DOP).
But despite changing course from theater to international negotiations, I discovered that the latter is not always so different from the former. On the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Agreement, I noted in an article published in The American Interest:
I don’t know whether the Bard of Avon was correct in observing that, “All the world’s a stage.” But on September 13, 1993, the White House clearly turned into a big stage. After [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat shook hands in the White House in 1979 before the cheering audience and were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously quipped: “Rather than the Nobel, they deserved an Oscar.”
Theatrics is always intertwined with Middle East peacemaking. Indeed, on September 13, 1993, the elevated podium on which the signing ceremony would occur momentarily began looking like a stage. The people invited to attend the event were seated on chairs arranged in rows, just like in a theater. And over the foregoing three days, [U.S. President Bill] Clinton, Rabin, and [ PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat were dealing with the costumes that Arafat, a main protagonist in this show, would wear. These three characters also discussed their movements during the play’s climax, and Clinton even rehearsed them with his aides. All of these visuals, one must admit, were much more important than the script that I wrote for this play—the text of the DOP.
After the signing of the Oslo Agreement, my career again crossed paths with that of my father. One day, I was invited to an interview on Israeli television to explain the agreement. At the end of the interview, the interviewer surprised me by saying that the producers had arranged for my father to be present in a TV studio in Austria to greet me remotely. The interviewer then pointed at a TV monitor that was standing next to me, on which my father’s face appeared, and my father started talking with me. Suddenly, the picture on the TV monitor froze and as the interviewer apologized for the disruption, I felt a tap on my shoulder. As I turned back, I saw my father standing behind me.
As it turned out, without my knowledge, the producers had arranged to fly my father for one day from Austria to Israel to participate in the show and the broadcast of him talking to me – not remotely from Austria (he’d been talking to me from an adjacent studio), but in person. After we hugged, the interviewer asked my father to sing the main song from the musical “Man of La Mancha,” called “The Impossible Dream.” Here is the first verse of the song:
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star.
(Lyrics: Joe Darion; music: Mitch Leigh)
You can listen to my father singing this song by clicking here. As my father sang this song, the camera switched back and forth from his face to my face, thus creating a clear analogy between Don Quixote’s quest of an impossible dream and my own quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace pursuant to the Oslo Agreement – presumably also considered an impossible dream.
The “Oslo” Play
When rehearsals for the “Oslo” play began at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, the playwright J.T. Rogers invited me to meet with the cast, to give the actors a first-hand impression of how it felt to negotiate the DOP in Oslo. Even before I made the trip to New York, the actor Joseph (Joe) Siravo, who would portray “Joel Singer” on the stage, contacted me with a request to meet me in my office in Washington, DC. Apparently, Joe wanted to watch me closely so that he might better portray me on the stage.
On his arrival, Joe – who, among many notable roles, played the father of Tony Soprano, Johnny, in the TV series The Sopranos – attracted a lot of attention in our office building. As I escorted him to my office, people stopped him to ask for his autograph. Once in my office, Joe began to “interview” me about my experience in Oslo, watching how I talk and conduct myself. When I told Joe that I wrote the first draft of the Oslo Agreement while sitting in my office in the very same chair I sat in at that moment, Joe – apparently following a “Method Acting” routine – asked permission to sit in my chair so that he might absorb and internalize how it must have felt to write the Oslo Agreement.
I told Joe that my father was an actor, but I decided to become a lawyer. Joe told me that his father was a lawyer, but he decided to become an actor. We immediately bonded and kept in touch in the subsequent years, calling one another “my alter ego.” Joe even consulted with me on personal legal issues. I hoped that he would be selected to play “Joel Singer” in HBO’s forthcoming “Oslo” movie. Unfortunately, Joe died from cancer in April 2021. Strangely, I felt a pinch in my heart when the news about Joe’s passing reached me, as if Joe Siravo had indeed become my actual alter ego.
Several other actors who played “Joel Singer” in other theaters also asked to meet with me in preparation for the role. One whom I did not have a chance to meet with, but who still sent me his regards – through J.T. Rogers – was Kazumasa Sagawa, the Japanese actor who played “Joel Singer” at the New Japanese National Theatre in Tokyo. Sagawa-san also sent me his photo, taken especially for me, in which he was dressed in his full stage “Joel Singer” costume.
Thus, another full circle closed for me – the young, real Joel Singer who sang and danced the “Yokohama Mama” song now had a counterpart in Tokyo, where Sagawa-san played “Joel Singer” on the stage.
The “Oslo” Movie
The HBO “Oslo” movie has been even more bizarre for me to watch than was the play. In part, this is because the Israeli actor selected to play “Joel Singer” in the movie, Yigal Naor, could not have been more different from me in his physical appearance. Naor’s family origin is Iraqi, which made him a perfect candidate to play a wide array of Muslim Arab roles in numerous movies and TV series (including, notably, Saddam Hussein), whereas the origin of my German-speaking family is in central Europe. Also, the 63-year old Naor is 20 years older than I was in 1993 and is about 20 pounds heavier than I was at the time. (At least they covered his completely bald head with a wig…)
Perhaps more troublingly, the movie creators seem to have translated my reputation as a “tough lawyer” into a character who might be described as a thug. Thus, they dismissed the possibility that as Israeli Prime Minister Rabin’s representative in those negotiations, I was required to present much tougher positions than those previously offered by the well-meaning but inexperienced and clueless academics who had started the Oslo discussions AND could also be a very collegial, diplomatic, and even funny interlocutor. Indeed, everyone who watched the movie (or play) has told me: “This is not you, Joel!”
Still, another (much better) casting choice in the movie allows me to conclude this article with yet another full circle that has been closed for me. In the movie, the Israeli Arab actor Salim Dau was selected to portray Ahmed Qurie (known by his nom de guerre, Abu Ala), the head of the PLO delegation to the Oslo talks in 1993. As soon as I met Abu Ala in Oslo, I came to admire his character, wit and dedication to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was, therefore, a very pleasant surprise to learn that Dau had been selected to portray Abu Ala in the HBO movie, because in 1994, Dau appeared alongside my father in an Israeli movie called “The Flying Camel.” This comedy centered on a joint effort by a Jewish retired professor (played by my father) and an Israeli Arab sanitary worker (played by Dau) – as well as, for good measure, an Italian nun – to re-build an old statue of a flying camel in Tel Aviv. At the end of the movie, symbolically, the cast-in-stone camel statue actually flies. To watch a short video clip showing Gideon Singer and Salim Dau in the movie “The Flying Camel” click here. At least in part inspired by the burst of optimism created by the signing of the Oslo Agreement the year before (1993), the movie presented an allegory of the limitless possibilities that peaceful co-existence between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land may engender.
A lot of criticism has been leveled against the accuracy of the historic events depicted in the “Oslo” play, which were carried forward to the movie. As someone who was not only present in the real Oslo discussions but also took a lead in these negotiations, I can attest that the importance of the roles played by the various participants and the substance of the discussions have been distorted in “Oslo” in more than small ways. For instance, the role of the Norwegian couple, Terje Larsen and Mona Yuul (whom I love dearly), as important as it was, has been inflated in the film’s narrative, while the role of Prime Minister Rabin and me as his representative has been marginalized. What became the Oslo Agreement started as an academic exercise between Israeli professor Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak and their Palestinian counterparts that produced a disjointed document. Had Rabin not agreed to use the Oslo track and authorized me to take over these discussions and convert the document into a formal agreement of which he approved, there would have been no Oslo Accords. This is why Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish murderer and this is why I was then assigned two body guards on a 24/7 basis to protect me against threats from other Jewish right-wing extremists.
Still, artistic freedom should allow the creators of “Oslo” to manipulate the historic facts for dramatic gains. And what a splendid piece of drama “Oslo” is! It certainly captures, in flying colors, the essence of the gut-wrenching drama and suspenseful plot twists that characterized the real Oslo negotiations. It also depicts – and in fact highlights – the human interplay at work when two groups of sworn enemies meet, as happened when the Israeli and PLO representatives met in Oslo.
There could not have been better timing for the airing of “Oslo” than now, just days after yet another round of violent clashes between Israel and Hamas ended, leaving dozens of casualties and destruction on both sides of the border. The latest round of violence seems to be just one more round in an endless series of attacks and retaliations that grew out of the demise of the Oslo peace process.
Against this backdrop, the HBO “Oslo” movie can be an important reminder to everyone that, not long ago, there was a lot of hope and promise, created by the Oslo Agreement. And while, for now, it appears that the chances of accomplishing a permanent status agreement – and Israeli-Palestinian peace envisioned by Oslo –are slimmer than ever, it is simply not an option to give up on that hope. Things can still, and must, change for the better. Therefore, I recommend that everyone – and especially those who care about Middle East peace – watch the movie and keep hope alive for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. If it could happen then, it can happen again.