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“The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” Israeli diplomat Abba Eban memorably quipped at the 1973 Geneva Peace Conference when the Palestinians backed away from a promising Middle East peace accord, and the same could sadly be said of a deal that might have been made 27 years later at Camp David in the waning months of Bill Clinton’s presidency. All the intensive and promising work that led up to that hoped-for breakthrough is the stuff and substance of The Human Factor, another compelling documentary from Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, whose 2012 study of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, The Gatekeepers, remains one of the seminal non-fiction works of our teenage century.
Because the new film is rooted in extended interviews with key American officials charged with trying to push through a deal meant to connect the creation of a Palestinian homeland with an Arab recognition of Israeli legitimacy, it’s a somewhat sedentary affair compared to The Gatekeepers, one dominated by older gents recalling how things were and might have been.
Still, the diplomats are all exceptionally vital, with superb memories, practiced verbal dexterity and strong insights, who worked for a president who, whatever his faults, here reminds what it was like to have a sharp, young, mentally dexterous commander in chief at the wheel. Even with the failure of the mission at hand, there’s more than a bit of a nostalgia factor here for a head of state who knew what he was doing.
“You can’t ignore the human factor,” one of the diplomats insists early on, meaning that extended personal contact between key players in a complicated negotiation can be vital to eventually making inroads and creating breakthroughs in seemingly intractable political predicaments. With the Soviet Union crumbled, the most vital international challenge in the 1990s was almost certainly the Arab/Israeli conflict and, specifically, the potential creation of a Palestinian state.
There were encouraging signs: Yitzhak Rabin was re-elected as prime minister of Israel in 1992 on a platform promoting the peace process; a year later, he did the unthinkable by shaking hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House, and the year after that the Oslo Accords were struck. But then Rabin was assassinated and it took another six years until another prime minister, Ehud Barak, could be persuaded to take a gamble in extended sessions with Arafat and Clinton at Camp David in July 2000 that a major accord could be reached.
The arduous saga is mainly recounted by six top American diplomats of the time: Gamal Helal, senior Arabic interpreter and special Middle East envoy; Martin Indyk, two-time U.S. Ambassador to Israel; Daniel Kurtzer, who had served as ambassador to both Egypt and Israel; Aaron Miller, a longtime leading Middle East analyst for the State Department; Robert Malley, special assistant to Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs; and Dennis Ross, special Middle East envoy, Clinton’s point man, the “architect” of the proposed peace plan and advisor on the Middle East to four administrations, from Bush senior to Obama.
Sedentary at these encounters may be, they are also frequently riveting and invariably fascinating, as they provide first-hand accounts and insider insights of the sort infrequently heard. These almost invariably underline the significance of the film’s title in the scheme of diplomacy and rewardingly reveal the hopes and regrets that come with the territory.
As ever, insider diplomatic details are telling and amusing. Rabin, who was very uncomfortable at the prospect of publicly shaking Arafat’s hand at the White House ceremony, issued three non-negotiable conditions: Arafat must not be allowed to pack a gun, as he always did; there would be no cheek-to-cheek kissing; and the Palestinian leader was not to wear a military uniform.
Massive amounts of TV and documentary footage summon up key moments in time: Angry Israeli crowds cry out, “Rabin is a traitor!,” prefiguring his assassination; the Monica Lewinsky scandal intervenes to take some of the pressure off the Israelis at a key moment; and one interlude reminds that Arafat was a sworn enemy of Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad.
One is also reminded of how much domestic opposition these leaders faced far from the etiquette and relative calm of the White House and Camp David: Rabin, of course, was branded a traitor and paid with his life for his efforts, while Arafat at a certain point began arresting many Palestinians. How a peace would have been truly established and then held is anyone’s guess.
But through it all run the observations of the American diplomats, whose combined contributions are variously intelligent, humorous, regretful, revealing and resigned; without explicitly saying so, they give the impression of having given their all to the cause of the U.S.’s effort to achieve a Middle East breakthrough that simply wasn’t to be. The film overwhelmingly conveys the impression of a missed moment that inevitably would have changed history in ways we cannot, and never will, know.
Production companies: DMP, Rise Films
With: Gamal Helal, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron Miller, Robert Malloy, Dennis Ross
Director: Dror Moreh
Producers: Dror Moreh, Teddy Leifer
Executive producers: David Harding, Claudia Harding
Screenwriters: Dror Moreh, Oron Adar
Director of photography: Kobi Zaig
Editor: Oron Adar
Music: Eugene Levitas
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
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