Producers: Teddy Leifer, Dror Moreh and Sol Goodman   Director: Dror Moreh   Screenplay: Oron Adar and Dror Moreh   Cast: Gamal Helal, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron Miller, Robert Malley and Dennis Ross      Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B

Dror Moreh’s documentary about the Arab-Israeli peace talks of the 1990s appears at a moment when violence in the region has resumed on a major scale and prospects for a cease-fire, let alone a lasting cessation of hostilities, seem dim.  In that context “The Human Factor” can serve as a reminder of a time of greater optimism that a solution to the seemingly intractable issues between Israelis and Palestinians might be within reach.  But it also suggests that the optimism was misplaced, in large measure because the American participants in the peace efforts failed to appreciate the personalities and cultural perspectives on both sides.

The film is based on the recollections and analyses of five of the US figures who played major roles in the negotiations over the period 1992-2000, from the last year of the first Bush administration through Bill Clinton’s two terms—Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron Miller and Robert Malley.  A sixth commentator is added to the mix—Gamal Helal, who served as translator in talks between Clinton and Yasser Arafat. 

The treatment by Moreh and Oron Adar falls into three parts.  The first, a sort of prologue, deals with the efforts by Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker to prod Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into joining talks in the waning months of his tenure in office.  The second focuses on the negotiations between Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that culminated in the Oslo Accords, beginning a process that was derailed by the tragedy of Rabin’s assassination in 1995.  After skimming over the first term of Benjamin Netanyahu, the third segment follows the almost desperate efforts of Clinton to secure a broad-based deal between Arafat and the new Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, an attempt that very publicly collapsed.

The American commentators offer some telling observations about why the decade-long attempt to reach peace failed.  One, emphasized by Ross, has to do with the titular item—the need to understand the personalities one was dealing with and cultivate relationships with and between them.  A primary example is the gradual warming that occurred over the years between Arafat and Rabin, which was shattered by the latter’s death.  Conversely, Barak arrived on the scene with grand schemes for resolving all the major issues but couldn’t seal the deal because of a major sticking point that Arafat could never accept, and the two men had no sense of mutual respect to fall back on.

But other factors are also important.  One, for example, had to do with the US attitude which, though often represented as that of an honest broker, was really tipped in Israel’s favor: one of the commentators remarks that American mediators really served as Israel’s lawyers, failing to understand the cultural perspective of the Palestinians.  Another, more prosaic, element had to do with a penchant for treating agreements on overarching principles as great achievements, without acknowledging that the likelihood of reaching accommodations on all the details left to be worked out later would be minimal.

Apart from these large matters the documentary offers a wealth of anecdotal material about how the principals acted in the course of the negotiations that is simply fascinating, from the way that some enjoyed racing golf carts around Camp David to the formalities that had to be worked out before Rabin would agree to shake hands with Arafat at the White House, down to what sort of suit the chairman would have to wear. 

It’s never easy to keep what is essentially a succession of talking-head interviews interesting over feature length, but cinematographer Kobi Zaig and editor Adar manage pretty well by including lots of archival material—news footage and behind-the-scenes stills—in the mix.  The score by Eugene Levitas tries to ramp up the sense of excitement a bit heavy-handedly, however.

The numerous books on these negotiations might offer more detail and deeper insights—the lack of direct input from any Palestinian or Israeli voices here is an obvious limitation—but Moreh’s film provides an engrossing if incomplete postmortem on one of the most frustrating and consequential failures in modern US diplomatic history.