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Director interview'Not only did they fail, but things are much worse now'

Room where it didn’t happen: US mediators reveal failed Israel-PLO peace talks

In ‘The Human Factor,’ key American negotiators answer Israeli director Dror Moreh’s pointed questions about how a peace plan spanning two administrations crashed and burned

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Left to Right: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000.
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
    Left to Right: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Left to Right: Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton at the White House (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
    Left to Right: Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton at the White House (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Left to Right: Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres at Oslo B Summit in Washington, DC.
(Israeli Government Press Office/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
    Left to Right: Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres at Oslo B Summit in Washington, DC. (Israeli Government Press Office/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Left to Right: Gamal Helal, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000.
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
    Left to Right: Gamal Helal, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Why, after more than a century of bloody conflict, have Israelis and Palestinians failed to reach a peace agreement? Israeli director Dror Moreh goes behind closed doors of the sincere, though largely failed efforts spearheaded by the United States by interviewing a handful of the American negotiators in his new documentary, “The Human Factor,” opening January 22 in the US.

This past November marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by right-wing Jewish extremist Yigal Amir. Moreh sees this as a fitting time to reflect on the derailment of the peace process Rabin worked so hard on. He does so from the unique perspective of the Americans who devoted decades of their careers trying to create a more secure and tranquil Middle East.

Moreh, whose work often focuses on geopolitics, is the director of the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2012 “The Gatekeepers.” In it, he conducted unprecedented on-camera interviews with all six former heads of Israel’s secret service — the Shin Bet — who were still living at the time.

In “The Human Factor,” we hear from well-known figures special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, Ambassador Martin Indyk, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, State Department analyst Aaron David Miller, special assistant to president Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs Robert Malley, and State Department interpreter and Middle East advisor Gamal Helal. Most of these men have penned books sharing their insights on the peace process, but now they collectively reflect on what went right and wrong.

“The Human Factor” tracks in detail the diplomatic maneuvers carried out by American delegations at the behests of presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton from the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference through to the failed Camp David summit in July 2000.

Dror Moreh (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

When asked why he ended the film just ahead of the bloody Second Intifada, Moreh, 59, told The Times of Israel that he didn’t believe there was any positive momentum to portray beyond that. (In a related, upcoming six-part series for Israeli television, the filmmaker does bring the unresolved saga fully up to date.)

“The last effort to really reach an agreement was at Camp David. Everything that came after that was just a pale, shadowy mirror of leaders trying to build something that wasn’t prudent. Nothing that came later was as profound or as serious as what came prior to and at Camp David,” Moreh said.

The following are excerpts (edited for length and clarity) from a recent interview with Moreh, who spoke to The Times of Israel from his home in Tel Aviv during Israel’s latest COVID-19 lockdown.

Why did you decide to focus the film on the narrative of the American negotiators?

There have been so many movies and articles about what happened through the prism of the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. I heard everything and read everything. For me, what was interesting was the American negotiators. Their job was to bring the two sides into an agreement at the end of the day. Their success would have been measured in whether they succeeded in getting an agreement or not. They are the professionals, and I wanted them to tell me why this process failed. America invested in this diplomatic process more than any other in modern American history…

Not only did they fail, but things are much worse now. I wanted to know from people who were in  the room what went wrong from their point of view. 

I wanted them to tell me why this process failed

Do you think the Americans really had a grasp of the situation, and of the mindsets and motivations of the Palestinians and Israelis?

I think the people I interviewed, each in his own capacity and with his own views, understands the Middle East far better than many others. They spend a lot of time here. They know the players very well.

If you want to move to the future you have to reconcile the problems of what both sides see as the wrongdoings and injustices of the past. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are living in the past. The Americans know this, but I don’t think they truly understand it. The modus operandi of the Americans and the West is, “Okay, we understand the past, but let’s just move on.”

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are living in the past

Aaron David Miller spoke about this wishful thinking on the part of the Americans. He said, “We saw the world as we wanted to see it, not the way it was.”

Left to Right: Gamal Helal, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000.
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Gatekeepers” dealt with matters of ethics and morality. This film is lacking that, other than the question of whether the American negotiators — almost all of whom were Jewish — were biased in favor of Israel.

The heads of the Shin Bet decide to torture people, kill people. They deal with morality all the time. The American negotiators deal with negotiation. There aren’t a lot of ethical questions beyond the bias question, which they address. Ross said that negotiators don’t necessarily have to be unbiased, and that those who do not bring passion to what they do will not succeed in negotiation. Miller spoke about the fact that the milieu in which you grow up influences you, and that this led the American negotiators to unfortunately act as Israel’s lawyer at Camp David.

What were the practical implications of this?

Not the Israelis, and definitely not the Americans, saw what was required to come up with to reach a final deal. They were very far away from the Palestinian thinking… When it came to Camp David, [Israeli prime minster Ehud] Barak was dictating what should be and how it should be done and the Americans went along with it. The collapse of Camp David was due in large part to that.

No one was really ready to make a deal yet and that’s the tragedy

They all regret that. Dennis said in front of the cameras that he should have known better. It was a sort of mea culpa for pushing for Camp David at that time because Barak was pushing for a summit and a final deal. [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat didn’t want to come to Camp David and said openly he wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to be blamed for the collapse of summit. No one was really ready to make a deal yet and that’s the tragedy. The Americans should have been better prepared. (Clinton would indeed subsequently blame Arafat for the failure of the effort: “I regret that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized in a just and lasting peace.” — R G-Z)

Left to Right: Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton at the White House (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Indyk and Ross say in the film that had deals between Israel and the Palestinians — and between Israel and Syria and Lebanon — been achieved, the Middle East would look different today. Do you agree?

Many in Israel are relieved that they didn’t reach peace, because had we given back the Golan Heights, Assad’s friends would be on the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] now… It’s a “what if” question, and we are not in the what if, we are in reality. The reality is that the Middle East is undergoing tectonic changes. I believe that had there been peace between Israel and Syria, it may have prevented Syria from disintegrating.

The reality is that the Middle East is undergoing tectonic changes

What if Rabin had remained alive? And what if Barak had not been a small man? It’s an amazing question. I don’t think the negotiators are naïve. I think the Middle East would be different — but how so? Nobody knows. 

Have you asked the negotiators what they think about the Trump administration’s policies and actions?

They all hate the Trump administration, or Trump himself for what happened during these four years. They see the Abraham Accords agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco as indicating that something changed in terms of the Middle Eastern paradigm. But no one will continue to engage in peace with Israel until the Palestinian problem is solved. It’s basically Trump doing deals, which is what he does. The US gives the Arab countries what they want and Israel doesn’t have to give anything. The real core hard issues are here [in Israel], not in Sudan.

The negotiators thought that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is a disaster and will never be accepted. I also haven’t heard from any of them that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or closing the consulate in East Jerusalem will bring the Palestinians closer to agreeing to negotiating. 

Left to Right: Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres at Oslo B Summit in Washington, DC.
(Israeli Government Press Office/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The original title for your film was “The Negotiators.” Why did you change it to “The Human Factor?”

What was most revealing to me was how much of a role the human factor plays in those places. You would have thought that inside the room, they speak about Jerusalem, the right of return, and the like. But I learned how important the chemistry between these leaders is. When it was there it helped, and when it did not exist it hindered everything. 

The first time Rabin saw Arafat in the White House, before they went out to sign the Oslo I Agreement on the White House lawn, you see on his face, “What the fuck am I doing here? Who is this guy?”

But then you see the slow process of building the confidence between them. Arafat was problematic, but Rabin truly kind of slowly came to know him, came to understand him, maybe to respect him even. You see that at the signing of the second Oslo II Agreement, just two weeks before his assassination. 

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