The Gatekeepers — currently Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary, opening February 1 in New York and Los Angeles — is a movie that could only have been made in Israel.
Six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli agency dealing with domestic terrorism, each spent 12-15 hours in filmed conversations with Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, who spliced excerpts into a 97-minute film dramatized with archival footage and animated recreations. At the end, Moreh shows some of the “gatekeepers” saying Israel is winning battles but losing the war; that the use of force can never be wholly successful and eventually degrades those who use it; and that Israel is in danger of becoming “a Shin Bet state.”
It is a well-made, thought-provoking film, but the conclusions in the last two minutes are not entirely supported by the 95 minutes that precede them. In significant ways, they are in fact contradicted by at least one of the “gatekeepers” — Avi Dichter, who served under Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon from 2000 to 2005. Dichter summarizes Moreh’s apparent position: if we use force against the Palestinians, they will use force against us; and if we stop using force, they will stop using force. Dichter tells him the first part of the equation is true, but that the second is not.
In another exchange, recounted by Moreh at a recent screening, Dichter recalled receiving a 5 a.m. call with intelligence that a terrorist would bomb a bus later that morning, while Israelis were commuting; someone was found who fit the description of an alleged accomplice, but he was unwilling to talk; you have two hours, Dichter said, to find a person on his way to perpetrate a mass murder. So what do you do? At the screening, Moreh did not hazard an answer; and the non-response reflects the lack of easy answers to the issues in the film.
The film’s press materials claim that “for the first time ever,” the former Shin Bet heads are sharing their insights publicly, and Moreh says he was “startled” they agreed to talk to him. But in fact they have spoken publicly before — in a two-hour joint interview in 2003, published at the time in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, in which the “gatekeepers” expressed the same conclusions. The 2003 interview was instrumental in influencing Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza — with results different from those confidently predicted at the time. But the 2003 interview goes unmentioned and unaddressed in the The Gatekeepers.
As a result, while the film raises important questions, it also withholds important information needed to answer them. The film uses allegedly “first time ever” interviews to push the same points that were pushed back in 2003 by the same people, which produced disastrous results. A better film would have explored why things failed then, and why they have failed since, rather than simply push the same points again as if they had not already been given a real-life test.
The Yedioth Aharonoth interview was published on November 13, 2003, featuring all four ex-Shin Bet chiefs at the time — Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Perry, Carmi Gillon, and Ami Ayalon (Avi Dichter was serving as head of Shin Bet, and Yuval Diskin, the sixth ex-chief who appears in The Gatekeepers, served from 2005 to 2011). The Washington Post reported the interview the next day on its front page, under a headline reading “Ex-Security Chiefs Turn on Sharon.” The Post’s story began as follows:
Four former chiefs of Israel’s powerful domestic security service said in an interview published Friday that the government’s actions and policies during the three-year-old Palestinian uprising have gravely damaged the country and its people.
The four, who variously headed the Shin Bet security agency from 1980 to 2000 under governments that spanned the political spectrum, said that Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip …
Carmi Gillon told the Post the group sat down together for “the first time ever” because of their “serious concern for the condition of the state of Israel.” In Britain, The Guardian published its own story, with a headline reading “Israel on road to ruin, warn former Shin Bet chiefs”:
“We are heading downhill towards near-catastrophe,” Mr. Perry said. “If we go on living by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud and destroy ourselves.” Mr. Shalom called the government’s policies “contrary to the desire for peace”. …
“[The government] is dealing solely with the question of how to prevent the next terrorist attack,” Mr. Gilon said. “It [ignores] the question of how we get out of the mess we find ourselves in today … It is clear to me that we are heading toward a crash.”
The former intelligence chiefs agreed on a need to take swift steps towards ending the occupation by dismantling some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the AP story on the interview, former Israeli President Ezer Weizman accused the ex-Shin Bet leaders of undermining the government, calling them the “four musketeers.” The interview had a profound impact on Ariel Sharon: less than a month later, he announced his Gaza disengagement plan — the removal of every settler and soldier from Gaza, and the dismantlement of four settlements in the West Bank (to show it would be “Gaza first, not Gaza last”).
Almost a decade later, the four gatekeepers have the same concerns, expressed in virtually the same terms. The film fails to inform viewers that the concerns are not new; that they were considered and acted upon by the Israeli government a decade ago; and that the result was not peace but two rocket wars, involving thousands of rockets, from Judenrein Gaza. Call it the Avi Dichter false-equation insight: if Israel retains land, the result may be war; but it does not follow that transferring land will produce peace. In fact, it produced the opposite.
To its credit, Israel has offered the Palestinians a state not once, but three times, on substantially all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem. Each time, the Palestinians walked away, and Palestinian democracy has been a failure. Moreh is a fan of the “everyone knows” peace plan — a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with the Palestinians forgoing the “right” of “return.” But the Palestinian public has repeatedly rejected such a plan in public opinion polls taken since 2004, including a poll taken two months ago. None of this appears in Moreh’s film.
In the press materials, Moreh says the “idea to do this movie came to me while I was working on my previous film, Sharon.” At that time, he says, “I learned how the critique of some of these Gatekeepers influenced Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza.” He thinks “the time has come for the Gatekeepers to address the people at large, and not just the inner circles of decision-makers,” and he hopes his film will “initiate that dialogue.”
But the dialogue Moreh wants to “initiate” has in fact been going on in Israel for many years; it resulted in a Gaza withdrawal that blew up in Israel’s face, contrary to the public advice of the ex-gatekeepers at that time. Moreh’s film, made years later — and after the Palestinians rejected yet another offer of a state in 2008 — is not as new or bold as its self-congratulatory advertising declares. In fact, the film is a bit of a repeat of a two-hour interview from 2003.
None of this is to say that the issues in this film are not important. But one should take with a very large grain of salt the suggestion by Yuval Diskin that Israel is in danger of becoming a “Shin Bet state.” A “Shin Bet state” would not have allowed this movie to be made. A “Shin Bet state” would not have men such as these heading its Shin Bet — intelligent, articulate people honestly addressing the moral issues involved in their jobs. A “Shin Bet state” would not address such issues so often and so publicly, over so many years, dealing with the less-than-perfect use of power in a less-than-perfect world while under existential attack.
In a world where Avi Dichter’s false-equation observation is repeatedly proven accurate, there is no easy solution. The tragedy of the “peace process” is reflected in the fact that Israel is the only state in the Middle East where a movie such as The Gatekeepers could be made.
Check out Kathy Shaidle’s Guide to Your First Visit to Israel at PJ Lifestyle: