Three older men sit together. Gamal Helal, on the right, points at Arafat, on the left, while talking to him. Bill Clinton sits between them, looking on with intensity.
(From left) Translator and advisor Gamal Helal; U.S. President Bill Clinton; and P.L.O. Chairman Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. (Photo/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics-William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

‘The Human Factor’: Documentary tells saga of US-led Middle East peace flops

Just as we never tire of the saga of the Titanic, which is doomed to hit the iceberg in perpetuity, so we are drawn to the catastrophe of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the tempting, teasing question: What if this circumstance, or that decision, had been different?

Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh’s riveting documentary “The Human Factor” revisits the 1990s negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians through new interviews with the top-level U.S. diplomats who shepherded those talks. Familiar as we are with the admonition to study history so as to not repeat its mistakes, the great tragedy that informs our viewing and underscores the film is that, in the present moment, when peace is seemingly off the table, history’s lessons are moot.

I hope that’s not a spoiler.

Nonetheless, the lure of “The Human Factor,” which premiered in 2019 at the Telluride Film Festival, is that we will learn something. And don’t discount the strange pleasure we take in rewatching footage of a nasty accident or civic turmoil that we survived. The result is a viewing experience that simultaneously engages our cerebrum and churns our gut.

The film, which was slated to screen in last spring’s SFFILM Festival before it was canceled by Covid, takes as its starting point the demise of the Soviet Union, the status of the U.S. as the lone superpower and the swift move by President George H.W. Bush and his trusted Secretary of State James Baker to use that authority to initiate talks between various parties in the Middle East.

When Bush Sr. loses his 1992 bid for re-election, Bill Clinton and his advisers pick up the ball. This is where the film grabs hold as an oral history proffered by Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, Egyptian American translator and senior policy adviser Gamal Helal, and expert advisers Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller and Robert Malley.

All except Helal are Jewish, and arguably the film’s most compelling sequence (though it’s much too brief) consists of their uncomfortable acknowledgement of their unconscious pro-Israeli biases. They admit that they didn’t press Israel so much as ascertain how much a given prime minister would agree to (or concede), and relaying that information to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — that is, acting less like negotiators than as Israel’s lawyer.

As its title suggests, “The Human Factor” would like us to believe that the outcome of the various iterations of peace talks was ultimately determined by individual foibles and personal motivations — the personalities of the Israeli and Palestinian heads of state. Arafat felt respected by Yitzhak Rabin. Clinton felt driven to produce an agreement after Rabin’s assassination. Ehud Barak was overly and stubbornly confident in his strategy of striking a deal with Syria first, which left Arafat feeling disrespected.

The talking heads are backed with a fascinating parade of still photos and TV news snippets. It’s an intuitive filmmaking approach, but it has an unexpected and unfortunate consequence.

The selling point of the film is Moreh’s access to insiders, which was also true of “The Gatekeepers,” his revelatory, essential 2012 doc that examined Israeli-Palestinian history through candid interviews with six former heads of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet. But unlike that film, “The Human Factor” imparts more importance to the behind-the-scenes details and deliberations between the principals than what was happening in the streets.

Though Rabin’s murder in 1995 is a turning point in “The Human Factor,” less emphasis is given to the massacre of Arabs at a Hebron mosque by a Jewish fundamentalist the previous year and to the Palestinian suicide attacks that terrorized Jerusalem.

Consequently, the film gives less weight to the public pressures that prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Rabin and Barak and PLO chairman and president Arafat encountered from their constituents, and imparts more importance to their courage, common sense and willingness to compromise.

Although the film advances the narrative that diplomacy failed, doesn’t some responsibility accrue to the everyday Israelis and Palestinians who didn’t trust their leaders? And, not insignificantly, the people on the other side?

Helal says in the press materials, “I hope that future generations can learn that seizing opportunities is the main responsibility of leaders and nations.”

But should we conclude, to pick one example, that Arafat missed the moment when he turned down Barak’s wide-ranging proposal because it retained Israel’s control of the Temple Mount and the third-holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque? The U.S. diplomats belatedly admit that if Arafat had signed the deal he’d have been the subject of a fatwa in the Arab world.

“The Human Factor” is a fair, evenhanded work that doesn’t ascribe fault or blame, and neither seeks nor finds villains. But as is inevitable with films about the Middle East, viewers will see their own movie, filtered through their perceptions of history, politics and, yes, the human factor.

Those perceptions are of a piece with Helal’s rueful summing-up in the film: “Unless you are planning on accepting the other side, there is zero hope for a solution.”

“The Human Factor” opens May 7 at Embarcadero Center Cinema in S.F. and other theaters. 108 minutes. In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles. Rated PG-13.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.