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Israel's Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers, the recent, much-lauded documentary by Dror Moreh, consists of interviews with six former directors of Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaacov Peri, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, and Yuval Diskin. The film tells us a great deal about the organization these men led, its operations and travails, but less about the interviewees themselves.  It is above all, a political document. 

Relevant Links
Justice in a Gray World  Robert Nicholson, Jewish Ideas Daily. The Law In These Parts, a new documentary that places the blame for Palestinian woes on Israel’s military lawyers, exhibits scant awareness of history—and limited knowledge of law.
Mossad and Morality on Film  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. Like other movies about Israel made for Western audiences, The Debt poses questions based not on facts but on the filmmakers’ assumptions about Jewish guilt and Israeli intentions.

After retirement, security service directors sometimes agree to be interviewed, but it was a real coup for Moreh to corral six from across the past 40 years.  Yet these men are not as far from the public eye as some of the film’s admirers seem to believe.  As Moreh neglects to inform us, three of the former directors are now or have recently been Israeli politicians, one is a diplomat, and all except the elderly Shalom remain prominent figures.  While their discussions of the Shin Bet and its operations are mostly new, their faces and personalities are not, at least to Israelis.  This is a small but telling point with respect to the film’s overall orientation. 

That the film has a point of view, wholly political and linked to the secular Israeli left, is obvious and perfectly legitimate.  The Gatekeepers is not an objective history of the security service, its operations and directors, but a subdued plea for the evacuation of the West Bank, the creation of a Palestinian state, and the suppression of Israeli’s religious settler movement.  Moreh’s questions, the film’s narrative structure and, ultimately, the respondents themselves all reflect these goals.  In itself, the position is hardly original, but six security professionals making the same case lends it unique strength and compels serious thought. 

That former security service personnel advance positions associated with the left is not uncommon.  When they do, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish genuine political beliefs from exculpatory statements.  In the case of the Shin Bet directors, their apparent leftism may be partially a function of their having the freedom to exhale after stepping out of a brutal operational environment into a more relaxed and contemplative situation that allows them to examine, as they previously could not, strategic ramifications.  It may also be a function of their having operated for decades as instruments of an Israeli system that, as most of them pointedly note, has only tactics and not strategy.  This is a criticism frequently heard from representatives of Israeli military circles as well.  In the view of the service directors, only Yitzhak Rabin rose above this limitation.  Oddly enough, the name Ariel Sharon is conspicuously absent from the film, and his image appears only once, for a fleeting moment.  This, too, is telling, for Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and unrealized calls for settlement consolidation in the West Bank qualify as strategic innovations that advanced the political goals endorsed by the film.  It may be that Sharon simply did not fit the film’s narrative.

This narrative emphasizes Israel’s brutal efficiency in occupying the West Bank but also its regular failures. It does so with justice, but only to a certain extent.  Intelligence and security services are not celebrated for their humdrum successes, which go unseen, but are necessarily and properly excoriated for their all too public failures.  Of these there are, unfortunately, too many.  The film focuses on two of them: the Bus 300 incident and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.  In 1984, after the military recaptured a bus on the coastal road that had been commandeered by Palestinian terrorists, two of the hijackers were beaten and finally killed by a Shin Bet officer on the order of director Avraham Shalom.  In 1995, after a long period of protest by the political and religious right against the Oslo Accords, Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In one case, two wounded terrorists had been eliminated, murdered in captivity, while in the other, a little man had managed to kill Israel’s most towering figure. 

These and other Shin Bet disasters are correctly presented as failures that traumatized the nation and crippled the organization.  But the film does not explain (or have the interviewees explain) in what ways the Israeli system worked to reveal and then investigate the failures, produce a modicum of justice, and introduce legal, political, and tactical reforms.  The Bus 300 killings were uncovered by the press, and while those involved were ultimately pardoned, the ultimate result of the entire mess was the establishment of the Landau Commission, which created guidelines for interrogations and treatment of prisoners.  The Rabin assassination led to unprecedented soul-searching, criticism of the Shin Bet, and renewed attention to the threat of incitement against Israel’s leaders.  Other failures, such as the death of prisoners under interrogation and terrorist backlashes after targeting killings, have generated even more elaborate responses.  Layers of lawyers now assess the practical and ethical ramifications of targeted killings, and anti-terror operations are now assessed by still other layers of lawyers.  New military tactics that minimize collateral damage have been introduced.  Residents of buildings about to be targeted in Gaza, for instance, now receive telephone and text message warnings prior to any attack. 

All of these innovations are imperfect.  They spare some lives while costing others.  They enable some terrorists to escape justice and kill another day and permit Israelis guilty of abuses to go unpunished.  But on the whole, they represent moral improvements.  New thinking and new techniques born of failure and pain may also in some sense improve the strategic outlook by producing forethought and precision.  All of this is missing in The Gatekeepers.  That is the film’s greatest and obviously deliberate failing.

But it has other flaws as well.  The film does not take the Palestinians seriously, or seriously enough.  They are two-dimensional victims, with either standard-issue nationalist aspirations or inexplicable religious passions.  Little is said about Palestinian tactics or strategy; individual Palestinians appear simply as terrorists or innocent bystanders.  The film says nothing about a Palestinian culture that condones and celebrates the deliberate brutality of terrorism, let alone its specific roots in religion and culture.  Nor does it take seriously the reality of the corrupt Fatah movement that runs the Palestinian Authority or the religiously fanatical and murderous Hamas movement that wishes to extend its control from Gaza and is prevented from doing so only by Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.  It does not, in short, respect the threat.  Nor does the film say anything about the moral and practical difference between indiscriminate non-state violence directed at civilians and state-sponsored violence aimed at thwarting attacks against civilians.  The film strives to create equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians, invoking the classic equation-cum-slogan, “one man's terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  But a careful look at methods and intentions puts Palestinians and Israelis into sharp contrast.  The film’s failure to do so is unfair, although perhaps understandable, given its politics and those of the world film festival circuit.

The Gatekeepers is powerful and well-made, with a viewpoint that deserves to be heard, even if there is a certain predictability to it.  Though hardly a film that lets Shin Bet directors speak for themselves, The Gatekeepers provides a valuable look at the men and the organization.  Viewers will judge for themselves whether they are happy with what they see. 

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Carl on April 11, 2013 at 2:07 am (Reply)
My problem with these "experts" is that although they may be good at their specific jobs, their advice about the big picture is worth nothing more than any average well informed Israeli. Who remembers the experts who told us what a great idea Oslo was, how it was worthwhile to withdraw from the Golan and how we should embrace the "Arab spring"?
Ira Rifkin on April 11, 2013 at 9:18 am (Reply)
Not until the Palestinian side produces an equally self-reflective film about its failures will there be a real chance for compromise and reconciliation. I came away from "The Gatekeepers" thinking that Israelis can be proud of their maturity as a nation that allows diverse opinions a voice in the midst of ongoing existential stress.
Paul Marks on April 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm (Reply)
These people also advised (some years ago) that Jews should be cleared from Gaza - promising that there woudl be peace if this was done.

Instead of peace - there were thousands of rockets.

Yet these "security experts" appear to have learnt nothing - and are now claiming that there would be peace if the "West Bank" (parts of which is closer to the sea than it is the Jordan river) was made Jew-free.

It is astonishing that such closed minded people (who learn nothing from experience - and seem to know nothing of the Islamist ideology of the foes of the state of Israel) were once in such senior positions.
MIKE W. on April 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm (Reply)
Alex Rose on April 11, 2013 at 10:15 pm (Reply)
A film, no different than constructive journalism, requires balance. This is totally lacking and contributes little to the issues under consideration. Disingeniously, Moreh, while advertising the movie as "the first time ever" conveniently omits a 2 hour joint interview with the Shin Bet chiefs back in 2003 as reported by The Guardian titled, "Israel on Road to Ruin, warn former Shin Bet Chiefs".
Ignoring important contextual history results in the reversal of causality making Israel the aggresor rather than being on the defencive during the century old Arab-Israel conflict. Avraham Shalon called the government's policies "contrary to the desire for peace". Really? Israel has offered the Palestinians a state on 3 occasions on most of the West Bank with a capital in Jerusalem, only to have the offer rejected. And what of Sharon's dramatic disengagement from Gaza?
With the loss of dignity, one must surely wonder who is sick. Identifying with one's enemies always gives rise to questions on motivation. Dr. Kenneth Levin, Harvard psychiatrist and author of "The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege" posists this question, "Why did Israel persist in the Oslo process when following Arafat's arrival in the territories in July of 1994, Israel experienced the worst terror attacks in its history?" He answers, "To understand the why of the situation we must look at the psychology of chronically besieged populations. Almost invariably there are parts of the poulation that accepts the indictments of the besiegers in the hope that they can win relief and peace".
Stanek Frantisek Fanuel on April 12, 2013 at 3:30 am (Reply)
LIKE :))
Jerry Blaz on April 12, 2013 at 6:01 pm (Reply)
Perhaps the most important aspect of Alex Joffe's article about "The Gatekeepers" is that readers of the Hebrew press on a fairly daily basis know the opinions of the five former leaders of the Israel General Security Services, because, like most Israeli citizens, they have opinions and they don't want to hide their candle under a basket. The absence of Ariel Sharon is probably due to his current existence as a vegetating remnant of the man who was a brilliant and daring military officer. It is difficult to criticise him and there is little for which these men found to praise him.

I criticized his unilateral plan for evacuating the Gaza Strip, which had a large proportion of Hamas followers. Had he done the evacuation with the participation of the Palestinian Authority, the Fatah faction of the PA might have been able to prevent the subsequent violent Hamas takeover. So in my estimation, he did it in the worst way possible.

The fact that the "bus 300" problem became a cause celebre in the Hebrew press means that its disclosure in this film only repeats a sad fact of Israeli history. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was the culmination of political opponents who photoshoped his visage on an SS uniform, inciting people like Yigal Amir to jump at the attempt to become a hero of an entire wing of Israeli politics. What joins the two events, the "bus 300" killing of subdued terrorists and the Rabin assassination is the disclosure of zealousness within the population of the State of Israel.

If there is a problem for me with "The Gatekeepers" is that it is all "old hat."

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