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New Documentary Offers An Inside Look At '90s Middle East Peace Negotiations

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's taking a well-deserved week off. There's a song in the musical "Hamilton" called "The Room Where It Happens" about being with power players behind closed doors when a political deal is cut. Today's guests take us inside rooms where some of the most intense, high-stakes negotiations in modern times took place - efforts to broker a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Dror Moreh is an award-winning Israeli documentary filmmaker and the director of "The Human Factor," a new film which focuses on negotiations brokered by the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and a series of Israeli prime ministers.

The film draws on candid interviews with veteran American diplomatic negotiators who tried to bring the parties to common ground. "The Human Factor" opened in a limited number of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will open in other theaters as more resume operations. There's hope for a broader release this spring.

One of the negotiators interviewed in the film is our other guest, Dennis Ross. He served four American presidents and was President Clinton's Middle East envoy and point man when the two sides came closer than they ever had to an agreement to end the conflict. Ross wrote a memoir in 2004 about his experiences called "The Missing Peace." His most recent book with David Makovsky is "Be Strong And Of Good Courage." He joins us from his home in Bethesda, Md. Dennis Ross, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

DAVIES: Dror Moreh was last with us on FRESH AIR to talk about his documentary film "The Gatekeepers," based on interviews with all of the living heads of Israeli security agency Shin Bet, which earned an Academy Award nomination. He joins us from his office in Tel Aviv. Dror Moreh, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DROR MOREH: Thank you very much. Very happy to be here.

DAVIES: You know, this is - things are pretty grim today for those who hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This film takes us back to a time in the Clinton years when there were dramatic breakthroughs in a time, I guess you could say, of hope and prospects never realized. I'm just going to ask you, before we go into the story, how you kind of regard that moment. Dror Moreh?

MOREH: Well, there was a brief moment of hope in the beginning of the process. That moment was shattered completely when Rabin was assassinated. And I think the assassination of Rabin and the consequences of that assassination is something that we live on until today. The Israeli society have not yet paid the price, the real price for - and not done reckoning, a soul reckoning and searching for the outcome of that assassination. And from that moment on, I think we are all downhill.

DAVIES: And that assassination was in November of 1995, right?

MOREH: 4 of November, 1995 - my birthday, yes, my birthday.

DAVIES: Dennis Ross, it was Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, who was at the heart of these negotiations when they were quite intense. Now, tell us a little about him and why he decided to approach this seriously. I mean, he was a guy who was a soldier, right? I mean, he was chief of staff of the army in the '67 war.

ROSS: One of the most interesting things about Yitzhak Rabin is that he evolves as a person. He evolves as someone who sees what Israel needs. And one of the things that always characterized him was his complete commitment and devotion to the IDF. He built it, the Israeli Defense Forces. He built it as an institution. He kind of took an oath to himself after the war of independence in 1948 that he would never again let the army be as unprepared for war as it was in '48. And he stays in the military as a result. But he also begins to see what the - what occupation is doing to the military.

The first intifada that begins the end of 1987, it surprises him in terms of how the Palestinians act and how they continue this. And he begins to see that there isn't a military solution to the Palestinian problem. He begins to see there's a consequence for the institution that he's so devoted to that it will change the character. But it's not a police force, and it's being turned into one. And he feels that he has to find a way out of this problem. And it's also combined with something else he feels about his responsibilities to the military.

He looks at everybody in the military as almost being like his grandson. And he feels the need - and I heard him say this - he has to be able to look in the eyes of the parents, of the soldiers who have been lost, and be able to say to them, there was no alternative. It wasn't as if there was an alternative to war. He has to feel himself that he exhausted every possibility. So he changes, and he becomes a statesman, not just a military man.

DAVIES: So if we go back to the early '90s, I mean, this was the time when Israel and the PLO didn't recognize one another. And the United States couldn't talk to the PLO, was regarded as a terrorist organization, of course. And the United - you know, Dennis, you and some other folks had been working on negotiations between Israel and Syria. And then it turns out that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Oslo have come up with a remarkable statement of principles. This was a huge breakthrough, wasn't it?

ROSS: It was. You were taking a conflict, there was an existential conflict in the sense that you have two national movements competing for the same space. And they each deny each other. They deny the existence of the other because they somehow feel that undercuts their claims. So what Oslo represented was a historic breakthrough psychologically because it took what was an existential conflict and turned it into a political conflict.

DAVIES: Right. They were finally talking. It's amazing to me. I didn't realize this until I saw the film that that this was kind of done behind you, the American negotiators' backs. Essentially, the Israelis and Palestinian negotiators agree on a declaration of principles on interim self-government. It doesn't say what's going to happen, but it does say we're going to try and work this out and recognize each other. It's a huge thing. The secretary of state tells you, Dennis, the president will love this. And so there's going to be a big ceremony at the White House with Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat. And an interesting part of the film, Dennis Ross, is Rabin's unease with Arafat. What was it going to be like to - seen in public with this guy? Could he shake his hand? Tell us a bit about that interaction.

ROSS: The amazing thing about Yitzhak Rabin is he was the most honest person, most honest leader I ever dealt with. And what I mean by that is, A, he couldn't tell a lie. He physically couldn't tell a lie. He was also intellectually honest with himself. And he couldn't disguise what he felt. And he - his feelings towards Arafat were so ingrained, so deep because of acts of terrorism that Arafat had been responsible for that just stayed with him, emotionally stayed with him.

So when he gets to the White House, even before he gets to the White House, he wants to be sure Arafat's not going to be in uniform. He has to be assured he's not going to be - bring a gun. We tell him, don't worry, we're not letting anybody bring guns into the White House. But he is - everything is grudging with him towards Arafat because it's so difficult for him to actually be there with him. And then the idea that he has to shake hands with him, it's just - it physically, emotionally, viscerally is simply difficult for him.

MOREH: Can I add something to that?

DAVIES: Dror Moreh, go ahead.

MOREH: You know, I heard the process of making the movies - I heard all those amazing stories from Dennis and from all the others. And my challenge was, how do I create visual references to what they're speaking about?

DAVIES: I was going to ask you about this because the visuals are amazing, the film and the stills. Yeah.

MOREH: Yeah. And amazingly, we discovered that all of those events which have been happening behind closed doors have been documented by the White House still photographers. And there is a lot. And they are almost invisible. So they are like a fly on the wall. And they document all those amazing moments that I only heard the stories from Dennis. And when I managed to create, to combine those moments that were told to me, like Arafat - Rabin sees Arafat for the first time and what Dennis had described now - and you have that visually in the film in front of you. So you see all those moments, all those amazing moments, in front of you in the film.

DAVIES: There's dramatic tape on the South Lawn when the two leaders speak. Arafat speaks. It's in Arabic. And it's translated on the film. But we do have some tape of a bit of Yitzhak Rabin's speech. Remember, it isn't easy for him to shake Arafat's hand. Here's some of what he said to the crowd that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HUMAN FACTOR")

YITZHAK RABIN: Let me say to you, the Palestinians, we, the soldiers who have returned from battles stained with blood, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we say to you today, in a loud and clear voice, enough of blood and tears. Enough.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: It was quite a moment, wasn't it?

ROSS: Yeah. Look; it's chilling for me even now, I have to say.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Dennis Ross was a special envoy for President Clinton in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in the 1990s. He's one of several negotiators interviewed in the new documentary "The Human Factor," directed by our other guest, Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh. "The Human Factor" opened in a limited number of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will open in other theaters as more resume operations. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICAGO UNDERGROUND QUARTET'S "THREE IN THE MORNING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Dror Moreh, n Israeli filmmaker and director of the new documentary, "The Human Factor," about American negotiators trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an agreement to end their conflict mostly in the 1990s. Also with us is Dennis Ross. He was a special envoy for President Clinton and the point man in a lot of those negotiations.

So in 1993, we have what's called the Oslo I agreement where the Israelis and the PLO say, we're going to talk, we're going to resolve to try and peacefully coexist. So what happens over the next two years? There's a lot of really hard, detailed negotiations over what's going to happen in the West Bank, what's going to happen in Jerusalem between these sides. And the result two years later is what's called Oslo II, where there's going to - there are going to be some commitments and a timetable and maps. And that means there's going to be another ceremony at the White House. And again, Rabin and Arafat have had a lot of time together working on this. And Rabin, initially so uncomfortable meeting Arafat, what's it like now, Dennis, what - Ross? What's - what did you see happen between these two men?

ROSS: I really have to say, it was a transformation from Rabin who, you know, couldn't - literally, it was hard to shake hands with Arafat. Now, he actually, after the ceremony, he jokes with him. He - you know, Arafat gives a long speech. And he says, you know, we Jews are not necessarily known as great sportsmen. But we're Olympians when it comes to speechmaking. And he says, Mr. Chairman, I think you must be part Jewish. And it's just - everything is different.

And he has said to me before the meeting - Rabin says to me, you know, at least Arafat does things that are hard for him. And the one thing that Rabin frequently said to me is, I know we have to give up more because we're the ones holding the land. We have to give up more than the other side. But I have to see that they're prepared to do things that are hard for them, too. It can't be only me. It can't be only Israel that does things that are hard. And he felt that Arafat, unlike Assad of Syria, was prepared to do things that were hard for him.

DAVIES: You know, Dror Moreh, you know, you were in Israel when this was happening. And there were a lot of people that were terribly excited about this. And there were a lot of people that were furious - right? - I mean, who felt that they were - this was undermining Israeli security, cooperating with people who had been out to drive them into the sea. What was happening in the country in reaction to this process at the time?

MOREH: The problem was the suicide attacks. When - there was a moment where it started with a Jewish settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Up until that moment, the Hamas and the extreme Islamist were out of - they didn't do suicide attacks. After that attack on the Cave of the Patriarch, they started the suicide attacks. And it literally shattered the peace process in terms of the public in Israel, who suffered a lot of casualties, a lot of death, started to lose faith in the process and started to lose faith in the ability of Rabin to bring this process to a good outcome with all the terrorist attacks that were occurring almost sometimes two, three a week.

And it was a tough time. I remember myself, you know, we were afraid to go out because the suicide attacks were all over. A lot of people died. And the right wing, especially Netanyahu - was then the head of the opposition - were trying to inflame the situation, which was already inflammatory as it was. And, you know, Dennis told me an amazing story, which started when Rabin just started as a prime minister, where he said that - Dennis asked him, what are you going to do? And he said, I'm going to go for peace with the Palestinians.

But I'm happy that all my guys in the military are with me because when I will get to the point where I have to give to the Palestinians what they need - what I need to have, I will leave my guys in the military. They trust me. And I trust them. And therefore - and in a way, he kind of predicted the chasm and the rift inside the Israeli society, which led, at the end, to his assassination by settler or Jewish extremist, right-wing extremists, who interpreted the incitement of the politicos in Israel and the rabbis as a excuse to kill the prime minister of Israel.

DAVIES: Dennis Ross, you were talking to Yitzhak Rabin while this was happening, where he was at the vortex of all of this fury and hatred. How was he handling it? How was it affecting him?

ROSS: He was so stoic. And he was so personally courageous that he was dismissive. So I would oftentimes come and see him at his home in Tel Aviv on Rav Ashi Street, especially on Shabbat afternoon, Saturday afternoons. And there were demonstrations outside his place. And one time, I came in. And I must have looked a little harried because he said to me, Dennis, don't worry, it's not about you. It's about me. And I said to him, doesn't it, you know - doesn't it get to you? And he said - he basically said no. Part of it was, I think, his own just enormous sense of personal courage and conviction that what he was doing was right. But also, I think he really couldn't conceive that, in the end, that he'd be the victim of Jewish violence.

DAVIES: Well, of course, not long after that ceremony at the White House, he was assassinated after giving a speech at a peace rally. And one of the more moving moments in the documentary is, Dennis, you describing hearing about this. I think you were with your kids coming back from a dentist appointment or something. And it's hard to overstate the gravity of this event. Looking back on it, could this have succeeded if he had lived?

ROSS: You know, it's hard to know. First, he himself wasn't certain that he could do a permanent status deal with Arafat. He wasn't certain that Arafat was up to that. He came to believe that you could do a lot, potentially, with Arafat. He didn't know if you could do everything with Arafat, No. 1. No. 2, six months before he was assassinated, he asked me a question on one of these Saturday afternoons when I was at his place. And he said, who do you think is going to determine the next Israeli election? So I thought he was asking me about the internal politics of Israel. And so I said, the leader of Shas, Aryeh Deri. And he said, no, no. Guess again. And I said, no, you tell me.

And he said, look; Hamas. He said, two Hamas bombs and Netanyahu would probably defeat me. So we know that there were four Hamas bombs three months after his assassination. So we don't know for sure what would have happened. But I will say this, whether Arafat could have done a complete deal or not with Rabin, he did view Rabin through a certain lens. He didn't believe that Rabin was trying to somehow exploit him or exploit the Palestinians. He respected Rabin. And he looked at Rabin as being, in a lot of ways, what he admired.

He always used to say to me, I want to deal with the generals because he saw himself as a general. And he respected the generals. He once said to me - you know, this was at the time of - after Wye River in 1998. He said he would love to have a direct channel with Sharon. And it was very much the same thing. So I don't know that if Rabin had lived that we would have had an outcome. I do think the chances of having produced maybe not an outcome while Rabin was still there, but having created a pathway to an outcome would have been much more likely.

DAVIES: Dror Moreh, you were living in Israel then. Was Rabin trying to do the impossible? Or could it have happened?

MOREH: Look; leaders matter. They do matter. And how they act matter. And how they respond to each other matter. And if there's something that I learned from this project, with the tens of hours of interviews with each one of them, is the importance of the human factor and the importance of the relationship, the personal relationship, between leaders, between the leaders themselves, and the trust that they carry to each other. And in that sense, you know, the question of whether Rabin and Arafat would have managed to reach a final deal is a question that looms - I would say, something like that. There was a much bigger chance that Rabin and Arafat would have reached a final deal than all the others that came after Rabin. And, you know, at the end of the day, Rabin gave his life for this.

DAVIES: All right. I'm going to reintroduce you both because we need to take another break here. Dror Moreh is an Israeli filmmaker and director of the new documentary, "The Human Factor," about American negotiators trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an agreement to end their conflict. Also with us is Dennis Ross. He was a special envoy for President Clinton in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. We'll talk more about the film and the chances for peace after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU, KEVIN HAYS AND PATRICK ZIMMERLI'S "EXCERPT FROM STRING QUARTET #5")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking about the efforts of a core of American diplomatic negotiators to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in the Clinton administration, which seemed to hold genuine promise for peace, but which ultimately failed.

Our guests are Dennis Ross, a special envoy for President Clinton and the lead American negotiator, and Dror Moreh, an Israeli filmmaker whose documentary "The Human Factor" tells the story of the talks. "The Human Factor" has opened in a limited number of theaters in New York and Los Angeles. A wider opening is expected this spring when health conditions permit.

I want to move forward in the story a bit. I mean, after, you know, the peace process goes awry, after Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated, eventually Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime minister. He and Arafat don't have a great relationship. But Bill Clinton, the president, is deeply personally committed to try and make this happen, in part because of his grief over the death of Rabin. And there's a moment, Dennis Ross, that you describe when these kind of efforts by Clinton are intense and he's got to go to - fly to a meeting in Gaza, I guess, of the Palestinian National Council to try and keep the process going. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal has broken. Describe what you observed of him on this trip.

ROSS: So this was in the aftermath of reaching the Wye River Accord (ph) in late October of 1998.

DAVIES: That's Wye River, Md., which sort of spelled out some details to try and keep the thing moving, right?

ROSS: That's right. It was actually in another agreement. It was in another interim agreement. And one of the elements of it, there was a 12-week timetable for its implementation. At Week 6, he would go to the - to Gaza, inaugurate the airport there. And the Palestine (ph) National Conference would meet. And they would revoke in his presence - vote to revoke in his presence part of the Palestine covenant, the PLO's covenant.

So we're - you know, we're flying down to Gaza. He's been up all night. And, you know, this is after Monica Lewinsky, as you say - after the articles of impeachment have been voted by the House. And I'm - and first he tells me on the helicopter there he hasn't slept a wink. We get down into a meeting with Arafat, and I'm sitting next to him. And on his yellow pad he's written, focus on your job, focus on your job, focus on your job. What is amazing to me, even to this day, is not only how he performs in the meeting, he gives a speech, which is an unbelievably moving speech in which, by the way, I had done most of the drafting on. And he gets up there and he ad-libs it. and most of the people in the hall are crying, by the way, including me.

DAVIES: Can - you know, Dennis, I hate to interrupt you, but I brought a clip from that speech from the documentary because I think it is such a moment. So let's just listen to a bit of this, and you can continue your discussion here of it. This is Bill Clinton speaking at this event in Gaza. And I will just note that this is from Dror Moreh's documentary. And we're going to hear a bit of Dennis Ross coming in to continue his commentary on it in the middle of the president's remarks. Let's listen to this - Bill Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HUMAN FACTOR")

BILL CLINTON: I was with Chairman Arafat. And four little children came to see me whose fathers are in Israeli prisons. Last night, I met some Israeli children whose fathers had been killed in conflict with Palestinians. If I had met them in reverse order, I would not have known which ones were Israeli and which Palestinian.

ROSS: A stunning speech - he is as much preacher as teacher in this speech.

CLINTON: We must acknowledge that neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: And that's Bill Clinton speaking in Gaza in 1998, I think. Right? Dennis Ross, this - after that, this is the second time in the film that we see tears in your eyes. What was the impact of this speech?

ROSS: The extraordinary impact was - for me, was to see - these were among the most hardened Palestinian nationalists, and they are asked to give an approval. But they stand up, and they're literally moved by what Clinton has done. You know, they've seen an American president who can relate to them, but he's also telling them, you have to relate to the Israelis. They have pain, too. You don't have a monopoly on the pain. And this is how we're going to get beyond both sides' pain. It was so moving that it wasn't just me, it was this whole audience of Palestinians, many of whom I can tell you I knew who came in cynical and questioning - and yet left there in a way that was totally different, including Nabil Shaath, who was one of the Palestinian negotiators, came up to me. And he hugged me. And he said, we've never had anybody speak to us like that. I mean, to this day, it moves me still.

DAVIES: Wow. There's also a moment at the very, very end of the Clinton administration where, after the Camp David negotiations ended in failure, the Clinton team gets some principles and gives them to both sides, which the Israelis privately agree to adopt. And you have Arafat come in. There's some hope that it might happen. It doesn't. He wants to ask more questions. He wants to renegotiate. It can't be done. Dennis Ross, do you think Yasser Arafat would ever have been able to close the deal? I mean, there's this narrative that kind of grew out of this, that he would never be a partner from peace - for peace. What is your take?

ROSS: My take is he wasn't able to do a final deal. That it was - it required too much personal redefinition for him. That is not to say that he wasn't a partner for peace. You know, sometimes you can't reach a complete agreement, but you can set the stage for it. Arafat capable of doing limited deals with Israel because Arafat was the kind of guy who could never foreclose an option. What made it hard for him to accept what we were asking were three words - end the conflict. Well, for him, end the conflict meant end the grievance, end the struggle, end the claims. That, he wasn't prepared to do.

But I do think that he was capable, as he showed through these more limited agreements, of changing the landscape in a way that if he couldn't have done the permanent status deal, a successor might have been able to do it. So I draw a distinction between whether Arafat could actually have ended the conflict himself versus whether Arafat could have been a contributor to setting the stage for that.

DAVIES: You spent an awful lot of time with Bill Clinton, and you saw him in public forums and in private conversations. Give us your assessment of his role as a negotiator.

ROSS: Look. He was passionate about this, and I think the reason for the passion goes back to his first meeting with Rabin, where he said to Rabin, you take risks for peace, and I - my job is to protect you from the risks. And when he was assassinated, he felt that he had a debt, he had an obligation. So he was driven himself with a sense of mission to try to achieve this. And he - that motivated him in one part.

But I think there was another part that people never fully understood. Bill Clinton is a very religious person. And I think in - there was a - almost a religious dimension to his commitment to this. I saw it, and I felt it. And, you know, he was a remarkable negotiator in terms of his capacity to connect and to know the minutest detail and show he understood why something was important to each side. He was - that was his strength as a negotiator. His weakness as a negotiator is that it was hard for him to do the tough love part of it, which is, in a high-stakes negotiation, always has to be part of it.

DAVIES: That is Dennis Ross. He served four American presidents and was President Clinton's Middle East envoy and point man when the two sides came closer than they ever had to an agreement to end the conflict. Also with us Dror Moreh. He is an Israeli documentary filmmaker and director of the new film "The Human Factor" about American negotiators who tried to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an agreement. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the new Israeli documentary, "The Human Factor," directed by Dror Moreh. Also with us is Dennis Ross, one of the key negotiators. He was a special envoy for President Clinton. He also served for three other American presidents. There was one more major effort to try and reach an all-encompassing deal to end the conflict when Ehud Barak was prime minister. And it appears that he was quite serious about doing not just an incremental deal, but a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians. Dennis, what was his approach and what were its limitations?

ROSS: Well, what's interesting is he came in and - when he sees President Clinton for the first time, he says he wants to get two deals done within 14 months, meaning both Syria and the Palestinians. He wants to start with Syria because he feels they're the bigger military threat, but also because he feels that will change the context in which he negotiates with the Palestinians. One of the things he does is he wants to refine or revise the deal we were just talking about, the - what was the Wye River accord, which I am resistant to changing because we actually negotiated it, and we undertook certain responsibilities for it.

DAVIES: Well, and maybe you should explain what it provided.

ROSS: So what the Wye River deal did is it extended significantly the amount of territory under Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Now, to implement it, what Barak wants to do is he wants to delay some of the implementation. And I think one of the things this does is it begins to build Arafat's suspicions of Barak. But Barak has very ambitious plans. But he also has, in his mind, his own sense that he knows best how to do it.

DAVIES: Right. There was a certain inflexibility there, and he also had not cultivated a relationship with Arafat. We don't have time for the whole story here but, Dror, there's amazing footage that you get of all of these people assembled at Camp David - Arafat and his team, the Israelis and their team. And it sounds like all of the Americans didn't think this was - there was much chance this could work. But it was Clinton's last year, and better to try than not try. Dennis, it finally collapsed, right? Why?

ROSS: In the end, Arafat wasn't prepared to move on anything. We made a proposal that, in a sense, we drew out of Barak, what was the kind of things that he could actually do. And Arafat doesn't make a counterproposal, but he simply rejects it. He does - I will say he does go back to Gaza, and he goes back with the image that he defied Israel and the United States. The notion of defiance is very much a part of the historic Palestinian narrative. But at the same time that he is defying in public, he writes a letter in private saying, we've never achieved so much as we did at Camp David. Let's have another summit.

DAVIES: Let's talk about where things are today. You know, the Trump administration did have a policy of sorts - I mean, didn't make much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but we did have the recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain late in the administration. How do you regard those moves, Dennis Ross?

ROSS: Look. I think the breakthroughs with the UAE, with Israel and Bahrain, now Morocco and Sudan, are very significant because what they show is that Arab states see an interest in having a relationship with Israel. They also signal that they're not prepared to allow the Palestinians a veto over what they can do with Israel. It doesn't mean they're indifferent to the Palestinians because, after all, the UAE said they'll do normalization provided there's no Israeli annexation of the territories that were given to it under the Trump peace plan.

So what I see here is a new development that one can use to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians because Arab moves towards Israel can be accompanied by Israeli moves towards Palestinians and Palestinian reciprocation. There could be a brokering of that sort. What you had in the Trump administration was a kind of almost deliberate decision to distance from the Palestinians and not to address any Palestinian needs and to feel you could work around the Palestinians.

Now, part of what they did, in a sense, turned out to be right, not because they produced these breakthroughs, per se, but because the Arab states themselves began to see a real interest in working with Israel, given all the sort of challenges that they faced, not just in the security area. I do think we can build on these normalization agreements to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, not because Arab states can deliver the Palestinians - because they cannot - but because they can offer moves to the Israelis - public moves to the Israelis that can also be used to get Israel to make some moves towards the Palestinians and then to trigger something from the Palestinians' response. That's the one new development that exists right now that I hope the Biden administration will be able to take advantage of.

DAVIES: Right. And it's probably fair to note that one of the reasons for these new relations is the fear of Iran and that Israel is a natural ally with those Arab regimes in that area.

Dror Moreh, what's your take on the Trump era? You know, there was also the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What was the significance and impact of that?

MOREH: Well, besides psychologically, I don't think a lot. It's a psychological move. And at the end of the day, also all what has been done with Sudan, with the UAE and with Morocco, it's a deal. It's kind of Trump way to do deals. So for the Moroccans, they got recognition about the East Sahara - or the West Sahara. The UAE got F-35s. Sudan was taken out of the list of states that harboring terror. So in a way, America kind of provided incentives for them to acknowledge the state of Israel to - and it's good. It's really amazing for the Israelis. But at the end of the day, the core of the issue of peace is between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel with Lebanon and Syria. And that's the problems. And that's where the hard choices has to be made. This is where the prices are dear for both sides. And there, regrettably, I don't see in the near future or even in the horizon, something that will resemble an alternative to - or a way to reach peace. I don't see that. Sorry.

I really agree with the conclusion of the movie at the end where I - regrettably, the two-states outcome is almost gone. And the fact - we spoke a lot about leaders and decisions of leaders. When you look at the horizon of the leadership in Israel and in the Palestinian or the Palestinian and the fact that the Palestinians are now divided into two sections - Gaza is controlled by the Hamas; the West Bank is controlled by the PLO - and what is going on in Lebanon now and what is going on in Syria, there is no, in the horizon of leaders, people who can carry the weight of reaching or the decision that needs to be carried out in order to reach peace.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. Dror Moreh is an Israeli filmmaker and director of the new documentary "The Human Factor" about American negotiators who tried to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together. Also with us, Dennis Ross - he was a special envoy for President Clinton in those negotiations. We'll talk more about the film in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the new Israeli documentary "The Human Factor," directed by Dror Moreh. Dror Moreh is with us. It's about American negotiators who tried to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an agreement to end the conflict in the 1990s. Also with us is Dennis Ross, one of the key negotiators. He was a special envoy for President Clinton. He also served for three other American presidents.

You know, Dennis Ross, I looked at your memoir in 2004, "The Missing Piece," which is a reflection on some of these things that we've been talking about. And you say that it wasn't a futile effort, that it did alter the landscape of the Middle East. And you also said - and this is a quote - "there is still an underlying desire for peace among both publics." That is, Israeli and Palestinians. "There is an understanding among the mainstreams in the Arab world and Israel that continuing conflict is ultimately not an acceptable alternative." You still think so?

ROSS: Well, I don't feel as confident about those words today as I did when I wrote them because I do think there's a lot of disbelief that has entered into the reality for both Israelis and Palestinians alike. But I do think had you not had the whole Oslo period, you wouldn't be seeing the normalization now. It's true what Dror said. These were deals. But the fact is the UAE has built a relationship with the Israelis over the last 10 years. That began as a result of Oslo. The idea - if the PLO could be dealing with Israel, then other Arab states could be dealing with Israel as well. And so there is a legacy there.

And one of the most interesting things about the UAE deal, it's a warm peace. Seventy thousand Israelis have already gone to the UAE. The Emirates are enthusiastic about it. There are increasingly those throughout the Arab world who see that peace with Israel can actually serve their interests. Sooner or later, this can have an effect on the Palestinians. That's what I was saying. I'm more - I remain hopeful. Firstly, it's part of my nature. But I remain hopeful because I do think we have to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. And I think we can use Arab states to help do that.

I think if the Saudis begin an outreach towards Israel, it won't be in one move. It'll be in several moves. But I think there can be some parallel moves that Israel takes towards the Palestinians. It'll be easier for them to do that in the context of the Saudis reaching out to them. I think then you can begin to broker things. We're not at a point where we can solve the conflict, but we could be at a point where we can restore belief and a sense of possibility which has been completely lost.

DAVIES: God, I have to say, I marvel at your ability to visualize moves on the diplomatic chessboard still.

MOREH: This is why I love him so much. The - you know, he's still optimistic. I love him because of that, you know. We need optimistic people in order to solve problems in the world. And by the way, again, with the Trump administration, the value of diplomacy, the value of professional diplomacy and what that is and the team represents was completely out in - during the Trump administration. And real diplomats, real people that understand the region, understand the problems, they will come back now. And they are really, really important in order to reach those - hopefully peace process to resume itself.

DAVIES: One of the issues that's raised in the documentary is that most of the members of the American negotiating team over this - the course of these conversations are Jewish, varying degrees of observance among them. And there's a question of whether, you know, a Jewish - Dennis, you're Jewish. I mean, the question of whether, you know, you just have an affinity for one side or an understanding that colors the way you do things. What's your take on this?

ROSS: My answer to that is that we understood that there was no way to reach an agreement unless we took account of both sides' needs. And that meant we had to really understand what the Palestinians needed. We had to really listen to them, which we did. And I will say this. I think that all of us who happen to be Jewish on the team, we all had a real passionate commitment to try to resolve the conflict. So if there was something that our Jewishness contributed to, it was a sense of mission about trying to resolve the conflict and do everything we could in that regard.

I - you know, we had varying views on our team. I surrounded myself with people who didn't necessarily agree with me, not because I'm a saint, but because I realized they would think of things that I might not. We would thrash everything out on our side. But the one premise that guided all of us was not only a commitment to try to resolve the conflict, the other premise was we couldn't achieve an outcome if we didn't meet the essential needs of each side. So it wasn't just satisfying one. It had to be finding a way to address the needs of both.

DAVIES: You dealt with this for decades. How do you personally deal with the disappointments?

ROSS: It's not easy. You know, I mean, honestly, you know, it's the sense of passion that drives me, that continues to drive me. I will tell you, one of the things that motivated me more than anything else was I met the victims on each side. I made a point of having conversations with the people of those who had suffered on each side. And I still, one of the things that still moves me to this day, I was coming back from Gaza after one of the negotiations and stopped at - there's a kibbutz called Yad Mordechai just on the other side of the border in Israel. And an Israeli woman came up to me, and she took - put my hand within both of hers. And with tears in her eyes, she said to me, please succeed. And I have to say, to this day, that's still a factor that moves me.

DAVIES: Dennis Ross, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSS: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Dror Moreh, good to talk with you again. Thank you for your time.

MOREH: Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here.

DAVIES: Dennis Ross was a special envoy for President Clinton in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the 1990s. He's one of several negotiators interviewed in the new documentary "The Human Factor," directed by our other guest, Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh. "The Human Factor" opened in a limited number of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will open in other theaters as more resume operations.

On tomorrow's show, John Fasman of The Economist talks about increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology employed by many local police departments, often with little oversight, like small electronic devices that impersonate a cell phone tower so mobile phones within range link up and share their information. Fasman's book is "We See It All." I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.