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DROR MOREH: THE HUMAN FACTOR (2019)

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Retired US negotiators explain why there are no real Israeli-Palestinian accords

Dror Moreh is an Israeli filmmaker previously known for his Oscar nominated 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, in which six retired Shin Beit (Israeli state security) officers criticized Israeli politicians and Israeli government policy. In this film he turns to the history of Israel-Palestine "peace" negotiations from 1991 to the present focusing on the role of the United States as the chief negotiator. As in the previous film, the news is not good. Since it is chiefly from the US point of view, it is less revelatory than the previous film for an American viewer; but it does provide prospective from informed, high-level talking heads. In fact this is an intense enough story to almost justify Eric Kohn's IndieWire review casting it as "a first-rate thriller." But such is the realism of diplomatic history that it is a thriller that fizzles over and over. And the trouble is, as Jay Weissberg points out in his Variety review, this presentation only reinforces the myopic notion that the US is the final authority in these matters and really knows best.

We see that anything that was gained early on was later lost, and Israel and the Palestinians are further than ever from any kind of settlement. Again, retired officials are extensively interviewed and speak with a frankness that wouldn't have been possible during their working years. Toward the end one of the chief interviewees argues that the word "peace" should never have been, and should not now be, used for US-negotiated Israeli-Palestinian accords because they have only created false expectations and risk ultimately making the situation look increasingly ridiculous.

The highlights of the story are the temporarily successful 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords and the failed 2000 Camp David Summit. The focus is on President Clinton, who sought to be a Middle East peacemaker from the start of his Presidency; on Yassir Arafat, the chief Palestinian leader till his death in 2004; and on a succession of Israeli prime ministers, the hopeful Rabin, the useless Peres, the dangerous Netanyahu, the disastrous Barak, the long desert (for Palestine) of the last eleven years of Netanyahu again, only glimpsed here.

It all begins with Yitzhak Rabin who was the real hope, if a dangerous one, because he really wanted to put earlier agreements with the Palestinians into action. As the interviewees speak, we see many snapshots and film clips of moments in negotiations. Time is spent on "the human factor," as the title states: we see the Israeli leaders learn to shake hands with the Palestinian one, though they avoid his kisses and hugs. Despite Israel accounts (not here) that say Rabin "disliked" Arafat and "distrusted" him, we see evidence that the two men became friendly.

A high point was reached that ended when two years later Rabin was assassinated. This followed a period of already intense opposition to his peacemaking with Palestine of which the American negotiators were aware, but no subsequent Israeli PM had Rabin's powers capacity to reach out.

The film is an account of a series of missed opportunities on all sides - the US, because they had the influence, having become the single superpower in the early nineties; Israel, which could have made more concessions; and the Palestinians, mainly Arafat, who often conceded too easily and at other times might have taken a good offer when it came but held back. We get some sense of how diplomatic negotiation works, from more gestures of intent, to general but not specific agreements, to (a point never reached here) working out practical details. We see that there were numerous opportunities - which now seem no longer to exist in any form.

America is the power broker but is never "an honest broker," it is pointed out. This is because (though it is not stated) Israel is the chief client state of the US, and America's diplomats at the table (most of whom are Jewish, apparently) are all Israel's "lawyers" - and there is no "lawyer" for Palestine. Every time the US diplomats meet with the Israelis and get their demands and then take them to the Palestinians. Always first to the Israelis. So the negotiation is never equal.

This is also a portrait of Clinton, who performs well even under the personal pressure of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, giving a wholly improvised speech about the equal validity of Israel's and Palestine's causes that moves both sides. We see him often visibly moved or daunted. We understand that his Camp David was a mistake because the push to make a deal when none could be made did nothing for his image as his presidency ended. There may be doubt, but several of the chief interviewees here feel that had real accords been made, the whole Middle East would look different now. Isn't it pretty to think so?

Dror Moreh's new documentary is tamer than his first one. In contrast, it contains no criticisms of current Israeli government policies toward Palestinians and their lands - at a time when both Human Rights Watch and Israeli human rights group B’Tselem have declared current Israeli policy to be that of "an apartheid regime." This is more important and urgent than the diplomatic efforts of twenty years ago.

The Human Factor, 108 mins., debuted Aug. 30, 2019 at Telluride, showing at a half dozen or so other festivals including the Hamptons, Chicago, AFI and Jerusalem. US release by Sony Pictures Classics Jan. 21, 2021, opening May 7, 2021 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, San Francisco. Metascore 75%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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