For his dark, provocative documentary “The Gatekeepers,” director Dror Moreh secured interviews with all six living ex-chiefs of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service. And he achieved that dark, provocative impact neither by sensationalist distortion of their comments nor by camera trickery — although the film includes rare and powerful footage of counter-terror operations. He simply allowed those veteran intelligence chiefs, speaking to camera in separate, intercut interviews, to discuss their roles, the particular challenges that dominated their time in office, and their conclusions about Israel’s fight against Palestinian and, for some of them, Jewish terrorism.
The film was screened Wednesday as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival, with at least two of the six in the audience — Ami Ayalon and Yaakov Peri. For all I know, others were there in the shadows. I asked Ayalon afterwards whether the film had used his quotations fairly. “I think so,” he shrugged. “There was so much that I said.”
Unsurprisingly, all six of these “Gatekeepers,” men whose careers were devoted to keeping us safe, come across onscreen as smart, self-aware and intellectually rigorous.
Disconcertingly, several of them highlight their profound distrust — and worse — of politicians. Ayalon (Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000) recounts his touching childhood belief that, in Jerusalem, on the second floor of an office building, there is a long corridor with a door at the end, and behind that door is a wise man making wise decisions for Israel. Now, he says, I’ve been to that building and walked down that second floor corridor, and there is no door at the end of it, and no wise man behind that door doing the necessary thinking on my behalf. As Ayalon speaks, Moreh’s camera pans across the row of prime ministerial portraits hanging on wall of a corridor on the second floor of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Yaakov Peri (1988-94) recalls how, when his unit in the Shin Bet busted the 1980s Jewish terror underground that had bombed West Bank Palestinian mayors and was intercepted red-handed placing bombs on Palestinian buses in Jerusalem with the goal of killing 250 Arabs, the then-prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, praised him and his colleagues as “the jewel in the crown.” But just a few years later Shamir, and others, signed off on early pardons for the gang — who had also been plotting to blow up the Dome of Rock, with apocalyptic consequences — and it was the Shin Bet, which had thwarted them, that wound up “delegitimized.”
Strikingly, all six make plain, albeit with differing degrees of urgency and hope, their sense that an accommodation with the Palestinians is a security imperative for Israel. Avraham Shalom (1981-86), the oldest of the six, says Israel should try to negotiate with anyone — yes, anyone; yes, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he repeats wearily — to break down stereotypes and give progress a chance. “And if they answer rudely, try again.”
Ayalon quotes Carl von Clausewitz — getting one of the film’s very rare laughs by wryly describing the great military theorist as being smart even though he doesn’t seem to have been Jewish — who defined “victory” as constituting an improvement of one’s political situation. Ayalon invokes the quote to undercut the notion that any more permanent kind of victory can be achieved by intermittently gaining the upper hand over terrorism. My son, Ayalon muses, must have conquered Nablus three times during his military service in the paratroopers.
Carmi Gillon (1995-96) speaks of Israel making life unacceptable for millions of people. Yuval Diskin (2005-11) endorses a prediction by Yeshayahu Leibowitz that the capture of Judea and Samaria would boomerang, corrupting Israel and turning it into “a Shin Bet state.” Avi Dichter (2000-05), today a Kadima MK and the Shin Bet director in whose tenure the second intifada terror onslaught rose and was quashed, who sounds the most robust in his conviction that terror can be defeated in the long term, nonetheless also highlights his belief in the need for relations “of trust” with the Palestinians and his confidence that trust can eventually be achieved.
But it is Peri who strikes the most plaintive chord. Speaking over footage of a suspect being arrested late at night in a raid on a Palestinian home, he says that when you think of all those operations in which terrorists and terror suspects are dragged from their family’s embrace, with their mothers crying, even though you know all the dark truths about some of these people, even though you’ve witnessed the horrifying ruthlessness of their murderous crimes, well… he pauses … “when you leave the service, you become” … he pauses again … “a bit of a leftist.”
The movie is bleak in that the common assessment of these career terror-fighters is that the bad guys are prevailing — the Palestinian Islamists, and the Jewish extremists like Yigal Amir. “He won big time,” says Gillon of the prime minister’s assassin, who struck on his watch.
These men are realists. You listen to Dichter lamenting the decision by prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 to prevent him from dropping a one-ton bomb on a once-in-a-lifetime meeting in Gaza of the entire Hamas leadership for fear of collateral damage — heaven knows how many lives were lost before “we got” some of them later, Dichter says, while others “are active to this day” — and you cannot for a second doubt their singularity of purpose.
Their belief in the need for an accommodation then, is not born of softness. It is a hard-nosed assessment of where Israel’s interests lie. “We’re winning all the battles,” says Ayalon in the film’s final scene. “And we’re losing the war.”
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