‘The Human Factor’ documentary: American negotiators and the search for a Mideast solution

Dror Moreh, the director of “The Gatekeepers,” the documentary that featured first-time interviews with former Israeli Shin Bet members, is back with another groundbreaking film.

The Human Factor,” which Moreh sees as a “companion piece” to “The Gatekeepers,” again goes for the inside players’ approach to gain insights. He delves into the thirty-year trajectory of the backroom negotiators who were on the elusive trail of Middle East peace.

Moreh writes in the press notes about the event that was a pivotal point in his life: the November 4, 1995, assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It became the motivating factor in unearthing truths from the Shin Bet. It then pushed him to take a granular look at the American efforts to broker a peace process that would be successful.

The documentary’s title references the team of six negotiators and the leaders that they served. It profiles their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and roles in a conflict that has continued to prove intractable.

In conjunction with the one-on-one interviews with the team of diplomats are previously unreleased photographs from official White House archives. Viewers get a fly-on-the-wall perspective of harried phone calls, last-minute cajoling, and efforts to remain “neutral” in advocating for the different parties.

Prominently featured is Dennis Ross, called “the architect” of the Arab-Israeli peace process. He began his service with Ronald Reagan, became Clinton’s “point man” as the Special Middle East envoy, and ended his tenure as an adviser to Obama. For him, resolving the conflict was a personal “mission.” Despite fighting the entrenched narrative, Ross said that he “saw the possibilities.”

The other men brought impressive resumes to the table. Martin Indyk, Daniel C. Kurtzer, Robert Malley, and Aaron David Miller had previously held roles as top analysts, Ambassadors, and Special Envoy. They, along with Ross, were Jewish.

Gamal Helal was an Egyptian-American who had been the senior Arabic interpreter for the White House. Ross tapped him to be his senior policy advisor. Over the years, he developed a personal connection with Yasser Arafat.

Throughout the film, scenes encapsulate personalities in memorable ways. At the end of the Cold War, there is the concept that it is now time to “reorder the Middle East.” In comes Secretary of State James Baker, working for George H.W. Bush. Nicknamed “The Hammer,” he makes full use of theatrical actions to push his agenda. Trying to wrangle a group that includes Yitzhak Shamir, Hafez al-Assad, and the PLO, he informs them, “The bus is not going to come by again.” When Bush loses his presidency to Clinton in 1992, Baker’s efforts are over.

Rabin and Clinton are the new players on the stage. Ross comments on the prescience of Rabin. “Rabin wanted a full agreement. He wanted his military people around him because he feared an internal civil war.”

Questions swirl around. How do you deal with “two national movements looking to occupy the same space?” Is the process “aspirational?” How do you translate “an existential conflict into a political conflict?”

The press kit includes a complete timeline of diplomatic efforts, outlining all the stops and starts. Events listed include riots, suicide bombings, and world politics.

It begins in 1991 and The Madrid Peace Conference with representatives from Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. It terminates in 2009 with the re-election of Netanyahu. The description states: “Diplomatic channels with the Palestinians are frozen during the second and third terms under Netanyahu.”

Ever present is the aura of Rabin and his push to shift the equation. When he and Arafat reach an agreement, he utters the words, “Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”

There are some lighter moments, almost on the borderline of absurd. Indyk relates the story about asking Rabin if he will shake Arafat’s hand. Rabin lays down the guidelines: “No guns, no uniforms, and no kissing.” The rush is on to tailor a suit for Arafat. It turns out to be a safari suit.

More than one negotiator reiterates that the “Israelis and Palestinians are in different universes.” Arafat had a different concept of what the Oslo agreement was. For him, it was about Palestinian recognition and independence. Indyk said, “There is diplomatic language that relates constructive ambiguity to destructive ambiguity. Nobody really knows what a resolution will look like.”

The situation changed drastically in February 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an American Israeli, murdered 29 Palestinians and injured over 100 Muslim worshippers in Hebron.

Ross relates his concerns about the “ugly” mood in Israel and his worries about the Rabin government. “You see Netanyahu speaking at a rally where the crowd is screaming, ‘Rabin is a traitor.’ Even little kids are chanting, ‘Through blood and fire, we’ll get rid of Rabin.'”

By September 1995, when Rabin and Arafat came to Washington, D.C. for Oslo II, Indyk observed a shift in their relationship. “They had moved from being adversaries to being partners in peace.” He repeats the Rabin declaration, “Palestinians need a state of their own so we can separate out of respect, not out of hatred.”

Ross and Indyk relate with difficulty their on-the-ground experience of Rabin’s assassination. Ross, in an emotionally wrought voice, says, “It’s obviously still a moment that I really can’t talk about.”

And then comes the new election results: 50.4 percent for Netanyahu and 49.5 percent for Peres. The minuscule majority shouts, “Long live Bibi, the King of Israel!”

We hear about how Netanyahu takes it upon himself to lecture Clinton (who asks his advisors, “Who does he think the superpower is?”). The general reaction from negotiators is, “How do you move forward with a leader cut from a different kind of cloth?” Netanyahu pushes the envelope by opening new entrances to Muslim Holy sites. As a result, violence ensues.

Clinton feels obligated to finish the work he and Rabin started. The Palestinians see some hope in Clinton’s leadership when he states, “We must acknowledge that neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue.”

When Ehud Barak defeats Netanyahu, he promises the “dawn of a new day.” Yet, Camp David 2000 comes across as an unmitigated disaster. Barak pushes Clinton into the summit, even though Arafat didn’t want to attend. It is admitted in retrospect that the “United States basically acted as Israel’s lawyer.”

Ross sums it up as he acknowledges the deepening negative feelings he had. “We had great films, food, and golf carts–but what did we do today?” Everything is on the wrong track, headed toward failure. The majority of reflections about Barak are less than flattering. Only when Clinton is ready to walk away is Barak “prepared to deal.”

Indyk underscores, “The issue of Jerusalem had never been negotiated before.” Barak wanted to use the Americans to pressure Arafat on Jerusalem. Ross relates that Clinton even told Arafat, “Don’t miss this chance. Don’t get blamed.”

It didn’t work. Arafat didn’t want to leave the Temple Mount in Israel’s hands. To this day, Barak has insisted there was “no partner for peace.”

Clinton believed that trying and failing was better than not trying at all. Aaron David Miller, whose wheelhouse was the PLO, Arafat, and the national politics of Palestine, offered his top takeaway. “Leaders on both sides had to recognize the needs of their counterpoints without being bound to political or narrative ideologies.” He acknowledged that American failure was attributable to “looking at the world the way we wanted it to be, rather than the way it actually was.”

The film flashes images of discord and grief running through the Obama administration and ending with footage of Trump.

Indyk states, “It was a history of missed opportunities on three sides…using the term peace created false expectations.”

Gamal Helad summed it up more plainly. “It’s always easy to have an enemy out there. Unless you plan to accept the other side, there is zero hope for a solution.”

Excellent advice, particularly this week, as Jerusalem is erupting with violence.

About the Author
Marcia G. Yerman is a writer based in New York City. She writes profiles, interviews, essays, and articles focusing on women’s issues, human rights, Israel/Palestine, politics, culture and the arts. Her work has been published by the New York Times, AlterNet, The Raw Story, Huffington Post, Women News Network, Truthout, The Women’s Media Center, as well as other outlets. She has verticals at Daily Kos, OpEdNews, and Medium. Her articles are archived at Find her on Twitter at @mgyerman.
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