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The Human Factor Tallies the What Ifs of Israel-Palestine Peace Talks

Dror Moreh’s new documentary is an intimate study of the talks’ top negotiators and what they missed.

President Bill Clinton and Gamal Hamal speak closely with Yasser Arafat, touching his arm.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The what-ifs of history are both tantalizing and tragic—and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What if x hadn’t done y? And what if z had responded differently? What if an unanticipated burst of far-off violence hadn’t occurred in the middle of one of many conferences dedicated to negotiating the first steps toward a peaceful resolution? And what if all the players in a complex, three-decades-long negotiation process, hosted and steered by a series of American leaders and their mediators, had consistently acted with a modicum of good faith instead of a feigned show of trust in the enemy across the bargaining table?

These are only a few of the questions that occurred to me as I watched The Human Factor, a riveting documentary by Dror Moreh, the Academy Award–nominated director of The Gatekeepers (2012). Moreh’s new film shares much of the tone—direct, candid, and penetrating—of his last film, which consisted of interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service. As in that film, he has succeeded in the main in eliciting from the people he has interviewed—Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel Kurtzer, and Robert Malley—undefensive and reflective assessments of America’s role in the attempt to navigate an open communication between two formidably resistant adversaries. Their mixture of arrogance and bewilderment, assuredness and tenuousness, is alternately fascinating and painful to watch.

The film opens in the spring of 1991, when the United States is at the height of its power with both the Cold War and the Gulf War behind it, and is envisioning itself in the role of peacemaker supreme. The Madrid Conference in March of that year brought together delegations from Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, under the aegis of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Gamal Helal, who is the only Egyptian-American at the negotiations and was the senior Arabic interpreter for the White House before becoming senior policy adviser to Dennis Ross, comes across as the most clear-headed and nonpartisan observer in the film, the one who perceives the underlying fracture between Israel and its neighbors that makes a lasting settlement so elusive. The Arab countries’ idea of the future, he explains, consists of the “injustices of the past”; the Israelis’ idea of the future is “tomorrow.” The idea of a peace, he adds, is “sexy,” but “they” (he is referring to the seven American secretaries of state he has served under) “think they can ignore history and start fresh and reinvent the wheel.”

We watch as James Baker, George Bush’s secretary of state, gets on and off planes, trying to arrange a meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the stern Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad (both of them refuse). Shamir is profoundly distrustful, while Assad questions whether the Syrians should be making peace with the Israelis at all. Baker, who is described as the “consummate actor,” stares down both parties and, standing on the steps of yet another jet about to take off, gives them notice, saying, “The bus is not going to come by again.” This leads to the show conference in a palatial setting in Madrid, featuring the Arab countries and Israel together and the beginning of the dream of peace treaties.

As becomes clear during the course of the film, nothing will move forward on the Arab end without the inclusion of the PLO, which has been officially designated as a terrorist group, and whom the Israelis refuse to recognize, much less discuss terms with. But then a crack in the ice appears with the election of Yitzhak Rabin, who represents the left-leaning Labor Party (as opposed to Shamir, who represented the right-wing Likud faction), in June 1992. Rabin promises to “break the logjam” and, in an astonishing and personally courageous about-face, the former head of the Israeli Defense Forces announces that he wants to go for “a full deal with the Palestinians.” (He spells out explicitly that he is afraid of civil war and that he needs his “guys” in the military in order to take the necessary steps.)

The first of several secret meetings in Oslo takes place in January 1993 between the Israeli peace team, with Shimon Peres acting as Rabin’s emissary, and representatives of the PLO, including Yasser Arafat. Eventually comes the historic breakthrough under Bill Clinton’s presidency, with a stoic Rabin and a beaming Arafat shaking hands at a signing ceremony bearing witness to the Oslo Accords at the White House’s Rose Garden in September 1993. (Rabin has requested that Arafat not wear a gun or a uniform, which has traditionally been part of his image, nor kiss him.) The accords called for a period of Palestinian self-government, during which the PLO would oversee the area assigned to it. They also specified the withdrawal of the IDF from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. It would be a rare moment of light in a film that strikes mostly dark notes, if we did not know what happens next.

In the wake of the accords, instead of incremental progress came a series of hopes raised and dashed—of offers given and retracted, steps taken forward and then backward. One thing all the negotiators agree on is that there were profound misunderstandings between the two entities. The underlying problem, as Dennis Ross explains, had less to do with differences in goals than with a “huge conceptual gap.” Daniel Kurtzer points out that “the two negotiating partners were in different universes.” And Gamal Helal joins in: “For the Palestinians, the Oslo agreement was supposed to be an interim, short period that would lead them to establish their own states. And on the Israeli side, it was a testing period, if you will; it was based, like many other agreements, on that diplomatic tool called ‘constructive ambiguity.’ I think it should be called ‘destructive ambiguity,’ for sooner or later the points of difference will come back to haunt you.” Martin Indyk adds: “There was ambiguity about what the endgame was going to look like; it didn’t spell out what the ultimate resolution of the conflict would look like.” In other words, there was no mention of Jerusalem, the settlements, territorial jurisdiction, or the creation of a Palestinian state.

From here on in, things would only get worse, despite the deepening friendship between Rabin and Arafat. In April 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American doctor who opposed the peace process, murdered 29 Palestinians in a Hebron Mosque and injured over 100. This act was followed by a number of suicide attacks by Hamas, in which more than 170 Israelis were killed. Nonetheless, the signing of the second set of Oslo Accords went ahead in 1995, which provided for the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Arafat over 40 percent of the West Bank; in essence, the core of a state in the West Bank would now exist. Rabin also agreed to having a Palestinian police station in Hebron, at Arafat’s request. The two men had moved from being adversaries to partners, with Rabin stating that the Palestinians needed a state of their own so “we can separate out of respect and not out of hatred.”

Meanwhile, the attitude in Israel had turned virulently against Rabin—we see clips of inflamed demonstrators carrying banners accusing him of being a murderer—and on November 4, 1995, the 73-year-old Rabin was assassinated after addressing a peace rally in Tel Aviv, and Shimon Peres replaced him as prime minister. It might be argued that from here on, despite further attempts at negotiations and further addenda to the Oslo II Accords, despite Camp David—and despite, it should be added, Clinton’s sense of mission with regard to honoring the memory of his friend Rabin and securing a permanent peace—the battle to create harmony was lost. The elections of Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, both far less amenable to the Palestinian cause, didn’t help, nor did Arafat’s growing resistance to concessions as he became more suspicious of an American-Israeli alliance.

Aaron David Miller, who seems of all the American negotiators to be the most critical of the American approach and his own role in it, insists that the U.S. wasn’t “an honest broker”; that it coordinated positions with Israel and tried to market those positions to the Palestinians. “I just believe, when I look back now, we saw the world the way we wanted it to be. We did not see the world the way it was.… That summit, with the best of intentions and best of purposes, laid the basis for a trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship from which that relationship has not yet recovered.”

Moreh’s style of filmmaking—with its mixture of in situ interviews interspersed with footage, much of which has not been widely seen before, especially of various meetings in Clinton’s office and at Camp David—succeeds in providing a chaotic narrative with a clarifying linear structure, without simplifying the issues at the heart of the film.

The Human Factor manages to imply more than it directly states, which makes it a welcome non–ideologically driven film about a tense situation that typically arouses polarized and demonizing responses. One comes away with a sense of the overwhelming odds the American negotiators, well-meaning as they were, were up against. A viewer might well be left wondering whether the whole enterprise was doomed from the start, as some believe—whether Arafat was ever really playing with a full deck, or whether Israel lost sight of its own humanity, the all-important human factor, as the decades wore on and the country became an entrenched power with absolute control over a disenfranchised population. Whichever way you choose to look at it, it’s a history of missed opportunities, of countless “what ifs,” and nothing short of a calamity.