“The Human Factor,” from Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, examines three decades of failed efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, via recollections and insights provided by top U.S. negotiators who were involved in the process.
Opening Friday at Landmark Theatres, the wonky documentary has some bias problems, but Moreh’s subjects tell fascinating behind-the-scenes stories.
The title refers to the significant role played by personality and emotion, and the importance of building trust and respect, in peace negotiations.
“The other side has to believe it’s not being manipulated,” explains Moreh’s chief interviewee, Dennis Ross, an advisor on Middle East affairs for four White House administrations.
Additional featured negotiators, and their former peacemaking roles, are Gamal Halal, senior policy advisor to Ross; Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel; Daniel C. Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel and U.S. ambassador to Egypt; Robert Malley, special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs; and Aaron David Miller, deputy special Middle East coordinator to Ross.
Moreh accompanies their commentary with footage, some of it rare, and (perhaps to offset the non-electrifying nature of the talking-heads format) over-expressive music.
Moreh, whose credits include the similarly presented “The Gatekeepers,” gets rolling with a peppy segment on the first George Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, before focusing, almost entirely, on the Clinton era. He looks at the developments that led to several key events, including the Oslo peace accords, in 1993 and 1995, and the Camp David talks, in 2000, and the negotiators assess the results of these peace discussions.
Most stirring are segments devoted to the talks between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, whom the United States and Israel had previously deemed a terrorist and wouldn’t negotiate with.
We learn what led to Arafat’s history-making appearance at the White House, and to the former adversaries’ famous handshake, and to the possibility that peace was actually within reach. Also addressed is how Rabin and Arafat came to respect each other and how that “human factor” was crucial to their ability to negotiate.
Rabin’s peacemaking activities — which also included negotiations with Syria — severely divided Israel and, in 1995, cost Rabin his life. After his assassination, prospects for peace collapsed. Arafat felt disrespected by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and at the Camp David summit — which Clinton, tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, viewed as his chance for a golden legacy — Arafat didn’t act as expected.
“We saw the world the way we wanted it to be. We did not see the world the way it was,” says negotiator Miller.
The film has problematic aspects. These include a pro-Israel bias, on the part of its Israeli director and American commentators. Moreh gives less complex consideration to the Palestinian side, Arafat included, than to the Israeli subjects.
One also wishes that the film had more deeply explored how prospects for peace have darkened during the Benjamin Netanyahu years, when settlements are expanding and animosity seems insurmountably thick.
But that said, the negotiators Moreh has brought aboard are an informative and entertaining bunch.
Their accounts of what transpired (in the rooms where it didn’t happen, and of why missed opportunities continued to amass) are revealing and enlightening.
We hear about everything from Arafat’s dislike of Syria’s president Hafez al-Assad and how those sentiments affected peace negotiations, to the way peace-talks troubleshooters handled Arafat’s decision to wear his military uniform after he was instructed not to.
Negotiators also talk about how players at Camp David had little understanding of what Arafat wanted for his people. Giving Israel control of one of Islam’s holiest mosques would never be acceptable to Palestinians, some failed to realize.
Also discussed is the concern of Rabin that his peacemaking efforts would cause civil war in Israel. (He wasn’t far off.)
The negotiators’ accounts of the emotional impact of Rabin’s assassination — one negotiator gets teary-eyed, 25 years later — are truly moving.
The Human Factor
With: Dennis Ross, Gamal Halal, Martin Indyk, Aaron David Miller
Directed by: Dror Moreh
Written by: Dror Moreh, Oron Adar
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes