Middle East peace is always a very attractive proposition,” Gamal Helal says. “It’s a very sexy topic. I cannot think of a secretary of state who did not want to get involved in the Middle East. And, by the way, all of them think they can reinvent the wheel.”
Helal, an Egyptian-American interpreter and diplomat who has worked for the State Department through four presidencies, knows what he’s talking about. Like a guide, he knows how long the road is and how steep the climb. So does Israeli documentarian Dror Moreh, and his latest, The Human Factor, traces Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations through the eyes of the American diplomats, lawyers and negotiators who brokered those deals.
It’s a clever approach. By focusing on the Americans — specifically Helal, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Dennis Ross, Robert Malley and Aaron Miller — Moreh sidesteps whatever slant his Israeli heritage might bring to the proceedings. Instead, he lets American words, American perspectives and American recollections reconstruct the story. If history is written by the victors, then The Human Factor is history written by the lawyers.
The Human Factor: the perfect title for a story peppered with breakthroughs and setbacks. Ross, one of the driving forces behind the negotiations, began working in the Middle East under President George H.W. Bush before switching gears midstride to the Clinton administration. The goal was the same, but the players and the tactics changed. Clinton had little foreign policy experience, something his opponents dogged him about, but that would be old news if he were the one to bring Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, to an agreement. He did, and the image of the two men shaking hands and smiling is iconic. The tiny nuances of how that moment came to be, and was almost dashed a few hours prior, underlines the silliness at the heart of human endeavor.
And when it’s not silly, it’s tragic. In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist. It threatened everything. Enter Benjamin Netanyahu, and the tide turned even more. Peace was tenuous, but Clinton and his team gained positive ground. Then the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal broke, and public attention shifted while the Israelis and Palestinians debated borders.
It’s a fascinating story, and Moreh tells it well. Like his previous effort, 2012’s The Gatekeepers (about the Israeli internal security service, also known as “Shin Bet”), The Human Factor doesn’t employ elements beyond the documentary big three: talking heads interviews, archival footage and animation. Standard operating procedures, yes, but Moreh’s approach lends an air of sophistication.
It also helps that Moreh confines the bulk of his story to the Clinton administration — close enough that the main players still remember specific details but with enough distance for proper assessment. Moreh does address the past and the present, but neither feels like prologue or summation. This is an ancient story that remains ongoing with no end in sight, and Moreh takes care to make sure his reach does not exceed his grasp.