The following posting is by a guest reviewer, my husband, Ron Kronish. We both had the opportunity to view The Human Factor (documentary, 75 minutes, 2019), directed by Dror Moreh (known for his important documentary, The Gatekeepers, 2012).
Some of the advisors recalled some behind the scenes stories about Rabin and Arafat that were very enlightening about how their relationship began and developed. For example, Martin Indyk, who had served as American ambassador to Israel and was Clinton’s advisor on the Middle East and therefore a key member of the “peace team”, revealed in the film the inside story that led to the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat at the signing of the Declaration of Principles” (Oslo I) on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Rabin set forth three conditions—that Arafat would not carry his gun, that he would not wear his military-looking uniform and that there would be no kissing! Indyk also remembered how he coached President Clinton in advance to orchestrate the handshake! In the end, it worked out for the best. Even though Rabin was uncomfortable about the handshake, he did it! And Arafat was beaming on that occasion.
Later on, in September 1995, at the signing ceremony of the Oslo II Accords in Washington DC, which gave 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinians, which they believed would be the core of their future state, Dennis Ross remembers that the relationship between Rabin and Arafat had grown and developed and was much stronger. They had clearly moved from being adversaries to being partners in peace. On that occasion, Ross recalled that Arafat actually gave a very positive speech and Rabin responded that Palestinians need a state, so Israelis can separate from them out of respect, not out of hatred.
After the assassination of Rabin (November 4, 1995), it became clear that the peace process was severely hindered. But it did limp on for many years. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, we saw that he did not treat Arafat with dignity the way Rabin had, and this led to the breakdown in negotiations after the Wye River summit in 1998.
Similarly, the very pompous and problematic personality of Ehud Barak comes off very poorly in this film. After he is elected in 1999 on a peace platform, he was very insistent that President Clinton host a summit because he believed that it was the only way that another peace agreement could be achieved. The American advisors on the “peace team” were very skeptical, but eventually they went along with it. It turned out to be a huge failure, mostly due to the “human factor’. Barak did not treat Arafat as a human being. Rather, he constantly humiliated him. President Clinton kept trying to re-inject the human factor into the negotiations through his powerful and persuasive personality, but it was not enough.
In the end, several of the members of the “peace team” ---who devoted many years of passion and commitment to trying to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians—were soberly reflective about the whole process. Marin Indyk called it “a history of missed opportunities”. Aaron David Miller felt that “peace” was the wrong word for what they did since it raised too many expectations. On the other hand, Dennis Ross was insistent that “the whole Middle East might have been different if we had made peace”. And Jamal Hallal, another advisor on the peace team, felt that all of their attempts at peace accords did not stop people on both sides from demonizing the people on the other side. After all these years, there is still no real acceptance of the humanity of the people on the other side. Instead, we see each other as enemies.
As someone who has been involved in peacebuilding efforts between Israelis and Palestinians for many years, I found this film to be depressing and somewhat disappointing. By focusing only on politicians and diplomats—who specialize in formal negotiations rather than dialogue—it underscored the limits of politics and “Track One” diplomacy. From this point of view, I was sorry that the filmmaker totally skipped over the 10 months of informal discussions as part of “Track Two diplomacy” during 1993 in Norway, which led to the successful Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993, that was based on hundreds of hours of genuine relationship-building and the creation of mutual trust.
Finally, I think that this film should send a message to the politicians and diplomats who may try again one day (perhaps with the help of President-elect Biden’s new team) to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Don’t forget the human factor this time! Remember that we are dealing with human beings on both sides, not just pawns in a puzzle. Keep in mind that it is important to relate to the other in these negotiations with dignity and respect. This is a message worth remembering.