I have to admit to not watching every documentary but every once in a while, one comes along that is worth watching. Having just come to my majority in 1989, I remember the events to secure peace between Israel and Palestine, or at least as they were reported in the United States. Having just gotten the ability to vote a couple of years before much of the efforts in the Middle East were made, I was just learning about world events and how they impacted both America and myself personally. While at the time, some of it was difficult to grasp, much of the events made an impression on me at the time. When offered the opportunity to view this film, I was excited. That excitement paid off in a documentary that offers an engaging view of the events and enlightenment on the views of the American negotiators involved. While it cannot be completely unbiased, it gives an unprecedented look at the effort to secure peace in the Middle East and how the world grapples with those effects even in the present day.
Directed by Dror Moreh, the film follows the thirty-year effort to secure peace in the Middle East by providing a behind-the-scenes view of the United States involvement in the process through a series of interviews with the American mediators who were on the frontlines of the process. Beginning with George H.W. Bush administration in 1991, the film details the impact of then-Secretary of State James Baker to attempt to have Israel, Syria, and Palestine have a conference. It also defines the title, The Human Factor, that ultimately any effort to mediate or negotiate must begin with empathy, with the ability to gain respect and trust and not manipulate for your own gain or power. From there the film proceeds to provide the details of Israel Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization coming together to negotiate the Oslo Accord in 1993. The film documents the impact on Israel, on both leaders, and ultimately Rabin’s assassination. Eventually, it shows the further attempts by President Bill Clinton to continue Rabin’s work but the ultimate failure to secure peace which has led to thirty years of conflict in the Middle East.
What makes this documentary so engaging is the straightforward approach, the interviews with the mediators, a list of men whose credentials are impeccable and whose insight is invaluable. Amongst the men is Gamal Helal, a Coptic-American interpreter and diplomat born in Egypt, the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton. He worked with Dennis Ross who served as Director of Policy Planning under George H.W. Bush and also as a special Middle East coordinator under Clinton. They also worked with Martin Indyk who served as the U.S. Special Envoy for the negotiations and served twice as the United States Ambassador to Israel. Along with Indyk, we also have interviewed Daniel C. Kurtzer who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the term of President Bill Clinton and was the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 during the term of President George W Bush. Next is Aaron David Miller who worked for the United States Department of State for 24 years and between 1988 and 2003, Miller served six secretaries of state as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Last but certainly, not least is Robert Malley the current US Envoy to Iran, who at the time was Special Assistant to President Clinton, he was a member of the U.S. peace team and helped organize the 2000 Camp David Summit. I cite these names to give you some idea of the level of expertise involved both in the negotiations but also the level of insight into the interviews for the film. With these men, we have an unusually large inside knowledge of the Oslo Accord and subsequent events. These men knew Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat and worked with them extensively to build peace. Their discussion and information give the viewer individuals to focus on and engage with.
The film also linearly builds the information, including being honest that the work began in the Bush administration to build peace. This work was inherited by the Clinton presidency with negotiators attempting to achieve their goals for the next eight years. One of the other reasons the film is engaging and insightful is it doesn’t flinch from the truths or failings that did occur. The successes are obvious, Rabin and Arafat coming together in peace but the film gives honest credit to Rabin for that achievement. The US did achieve the handshake between the leaders but with the death of Rabin, the US was not ultimately able to continue Rabin’s work. And all negotiators are willing to admit failures happen on all sides, Israel, Palestine, and the US. Each man involved is saddened by Rabin’s death and by the loss of one of the leaders in the negotiations.
Along with the interviews, the film blends years’ worth of news clips, past images, and speeches from all parties among the words of the men. The blended approach allows the words of the men to have more impact and provides context to the viewer for the events happening at the time. It allows those who were not even alive at the time to be provided the history of the time which is crucial to understand the failings of the negotiations, the need for peace in the Middle East, and the consequences of the missed opportunities, where the events have led us into the present day. The skill of the director in weaving together the interviews with the archival documents allows viewers to engage with the events and to understand the insights the men provide us. The other valuable piece of information is that the majority of the negotiators were Jewish which begs the question of how or if the men were biased in favor of Israel in the negotiations, how that might have impacted Arafat’s decisions.
For me, having been an adult during the time, gave me a greater understanding of the time, into Rabin’s assassination, the lost opportunities, and a better contextual understanding of the history of the area. The Middle East is a complex topic with no real solution available. Whether we would have resolved this thirty years ago is a question, what would have changed if Rabin had lived or we had succeeded in brokering peace. But as one negotiator pointed out, the word peace creates false expectations, expectations that might not be shared by all parties. While that concept may not change matters now, it might be valuable in the future, if we have any chance of achieving lasting change.
If you like documentaries, especially of a historical context, this one should be watched. If you have any interest in understanding the politics of both the USA and the Middle East, this is certainly a film that is without parallel. The negotiators are invaluable in their insight and their empathy for the men adds humor and warmth to the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the topic, the film, and highly recommend watching The Human Factor.
Rating: 5 out of 5 negotiators.
The Human Factor opens exclusively in theaters on Friday, May 7, 2021.