U.S. diplomats reveal ‘Human Factor’ that fueled, foundered ‘90s peace talks

scene from Human Factor
From left: PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the Oslo B Summit, Washington, D.C. (Israeli Government Press Office, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

By Michael Fox

Just as we never tire of the saga of the Titanic, so we are drawn to the catastrophe of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the question, What if this circumstance, or that decision, had been different?

Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh’s documentary “The Human Factor” revisits the 1990s negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians through new interviews with the top-level U.S. diplomats who shepherded those talks.

The lure of “The Human Factor” is that we will learn something. And don’t discount the strange pleasure we take in rewatching footage of a nasty accident or civic turmoil that we survived. The result is a viewing experience that engages our cerebrum and churns our gut.

“The Human Factor” takes as its starting point the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s status as the lone superpower and the swift move by President George H.W. Bush and his trusted secretary of state, James Baker, to use that authority to initiate talks between various parties in the Middle East.

When Bush is rendered a one-term president, Bill Clinton and his advisers pick up the ball. This is where the film grabs hold as an oral history proffered by Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, Egyptian-American translator and senior policy adviser Gamal Helal, and expert advisers Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller and Robert Malley.

As its title suggests, “The Human Factor” would like us to believe that the outcome of the various iterations of peace talks was ultimately determined by individual foibles and personal motivations — the personalities of the Israeli and Palestinian heads of state. Yasser Arafat felt respected by Yitzhak Rabin. Clinton felt driven after Rabin’s assassination to produce an agreement. Ehud Barak was overly and stubbornly confident in his strategy (of striking a deal with Syria first, which left Arafat feeling disrespected).

The talking heads typically place us in the room where it happened, backed with an always-fascinating parade of still photos and TV news snippets that place us firmly in the moment.

It’s an intuitive filmmaking approach, but it has an unexpected and unfortunate consequence.

The selling point of the film is Moreh’s access to insiders, which was also true of “The Gatekeepers,” his 2012 doc that examined Israeli-Palestinian history through interviews with six former heads of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet.

But unlike that film, “The Human Factor” imparts more importance to the behind-the-scenes details and deliberations between the principals than what was happening in the streets.

Rabin’s murder in 1995 is a turning point in “The Human Factor,” of course, but less emphasis is given to the massacre of Arabs at a Hebron mosque by a Jewish fundamentalist the previous year and to the Palestinian suicide attacks that terrorized Jerusalem.

Consequently, the film gives less weight to the public pressures that prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Rabin and Barak, and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman and president Arafat encountered from their constituents, and imparts more importance to their individual courage, common sense and willingness to compromise.

Helal says in the press materials, “I hope that future generations can learn that seizing opportunities is the main responsibility of leaders and nations.”

But should we conclude, to pick one example, that Arafat missed the moment when he turned down Barak’s wide-ranging proposal because it retained Israel’s control of the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa mosque? The American diplomats belatedly admit that if Arafat had signed the deal he’d have been the subject of a fatwa in the Arab world.

“The Human Factor” doesn’t ascribe fault or blame, and neither seeks nor finds villains. But as is inevitable with films about the Middle East, every viewer will see their own movie, filtered through his or her perceptions of history, politics and, yes, the human factor.

Those perceptions are of a piece with Helal’s rueful summing-up in the film: “Unless you are planning on accepting the other side, there is zero hope for a solution.”

Michael Fox is a film critic based in San Francisco.

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