The news coming out of Israel and Gaza is as dire as ever. The events of these past two weeks could develop into the biggest conflict in decades between Israelis and Palestinians. Director Dror Moreh’s documentary The Human Factor recalls what was perhaps the decade that held the most hope for a peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the 90s. The Human Factor delights those of us fascinated by international relations and diplomacy to insider accounts given by the negotiators and mediators who were in the room with American, Israeli, Syrian, and Palestinian leaders as they attempted to work on a lasting peace.
The machinations of Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, and even the “honest broker” American delegations are outlined by veteran diplomats as peace negotiations shifted from Oslo to Geneva to Camp David. The Human Factor brims over with stories and insights by the likes of diplomatic heavyweights such as Martin Indyk, Robert Malley, Aaron Miller, and Dennis Ross. One of the most insightful comments comes from the interpreter and diplomat Gamal Helal. According to Helal, diplomacy comes down to an all too human factor, language. As he puts it, the word “future” means very different things for Israelis and Arabs. For Israelis, “future” means that which comes after the present. For Arabs, any talk of “future” is connected with mending the injustices of the past.
Diplomacy is a chess game. What The Human Factor does exceedingly well is that it clearly articulates how the outcome of this chess game—one that effects the lives of millions—comes down to the intimate trust and cooperation of individuals forged by sitting in a room, negotiating details both big and small, while sharing a cup of coffee or sharing a meal. The chess metaphor is admittedly an imperfect one. Chess involves two players, competing head-to-head, until an outcome emerges. Peace diplomacy is a long-term game played out along different peace summits by a revolving door of players. In the 90s, the only two constants were from the Palestinian and Syrian sides—Yasser Arafat and Hafez al-Assad.
On the American side, there was a shift in personalities and tones from George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker to Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Warren Christopher. On the Israeli side, each time the door revolved, the new individual in power marked a sudden shift in temperament—from Yitzhak Rabin to Shimon Peres to Bibi Netanyahu to Ehud Barak. As if all of this were not complicated enough, each of these individuals faced the pressure of advancing peace while trying to maintain the national interests of their respective countries while also feeling the pressure of reactionary forces within their own countries. In the case of Rabin, the signing of a peace accord cost him his life at the hands of a domestic right-wing extremist.
The Human Factor should be required viewing for students of international relations or even those struggling to understand the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Peace requires a long-term outlook. Working toward lasting peace is the equivalent of building a cathedral. It requires agonizing labor by many hands across generations. But here again, metaphors and language fail. The word “peace” connotes a final resting place, an ultimate calm, a convivial utopia. In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, realistic expectations are necessary. “Peace,” in their case, may just be an uneasy accommodation. Given the last two weeks, even an uneasy accommodation seems worlds away.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.