Ready for a documentary on three decades of crises and agonizing departures from the Middle East peace process, from the perspective of US negotiators? You probably think this doesn’t sound too appealing at the moment.
But there is a reason why “The Human Factor” by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh escapes what would seem a likely fate to be of interest only to politicians and those directly affected by the problem, and it has something to do with it. thing to do with the title. It’s a reference to a line from Dennis Ross, the group’s best-known negotiator.
“You can’t ignore the human factor,” he says at the start. “Someone with a human touch treats someone else with respect. Someone with a human touch doesn’t think they’re going to outsmart anyone.
The film goes on to prove the point, drawing a fine line between giving us the necessary facts and sounding like a dry history lesson. But the value is in the little, and yes, human details – like the fact that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat took it upon himself to cut Ross’s chicken for him when they ate together. Or the incongruous sight of Arafat’s entourage watching “The Golden Girls” on TV.
The film is full of such humanizing touches, not only on Arafat but also on the Israeli and American rulers. Like Bill Clinton, described here as a man whose defining mission is to strike a peace deal. A small but surprising anecdote: As the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupts, casting a cloud over Clinton’s presidency, Ross looks at his boss’s notebook during a crucial meeting. Clinton writes, “Focus on your job. Concentrate on your work. “
The film traces the long work of peace efforts through archival footage and interviews with key negotiators: Ross, who played a huge role for more than a decade, working for presidents from Reagan to Obama; Martin Indyk, two-time US Ambassador to Israel; and negotiators Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller and Daniel Kurtzer.
Thanks to these men, especially Ross, we get a close-up view of world leaders and their behavior behind closed doors. There is a fascinating description of a meal in the small dining room next to the Oval Office between Clinton, Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hussein of Jordan. Ross describes an offended Hussein berating Netanyahu as if he was a lost schoolboy: “You don’t have the maturity to be a leader,” he tells him, according to Ross. “You have to grow up and become a leader.” There is silence in the room.
At another point, Ross describes Clinton exclaiming about Netanyahu, “Who does he think the superpower is?”
This is, of course, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin died at the hands of a Jewish extremist in 1995, while he was seeking peace. The film effectively portrayed the reluctant respect that had slowly formed between Rabin and Arafat, from a moment when shaking hands was a painful gesture to a moment when Arafat casually draped his arm over Rabin’s back.
For this viewer, the most “human” factor in the film comes from the shock caused by the death of Rabin, especially Ross himself. The negotiator says he brought one of his children home after a visit to the doctor when he was contacted by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
After the news broke, Ross’s wife had to explain to their children why Dad was crying. “They had never seen me cry before,” he said. And, as I speak to the camera today, the tears return. “It’s obviously still a moment that I really can’t talk about,” he says.
Ross would of course stay at work, trying to negotiate peace between Arafat and Netanyahu, or Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Clinton was determined, but it was not enough. The high-stakes Camp David summit in 2000 fails to come to an agreement, and we see Clinton in his last days in power in January 2001, on a call with Arafat, who calls him a “great man.”
“No, I’m not,” Ross quotes Clinton. “I am a mistake.”
The film of course does not conclusively answer its main question: what is wrong?
But there is a clue. It is Miller who most directly raises one of the most serious issues: Was the United States ever truly equipped to be an “honest broker”? Was real peace ever possible when Americans essentially acted, as Miller says in retrospect, as advocates for Israel?
“I don’t think I am free from prejudice,” he says. And he asks, “Do we have Palestinian lawyers?”
“The Human Factor,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “Certain Violent / Bloody Images”. Duration: 108 minutes. Three out of four stars.