Watching the watchmen
Israeli Dror Moreh’s documentary The Gatekeepers starts off with a series of solemn titles describing Shin Bet, “the intelligence agency charged with defending Israel against terrorism, espionage and the release of state secrets.” It’s a top-secret agency, the movie tells us, whose directors are the only members known to the general public. Finally, as ominous-sounding music thrums in our ears, we read that those Shin Bet leaders “have never been interviewed about their work.”
Moreh forbears to actually say “until now,” and the pose of modesty paradoxically underscores an implied boast. No sooner do those words fade from the screen than the first of a succession of Shin Bet chiefs begins unburdening himself. (This one is Yuval Diskin, head of the agency from 2005 to 2011.) All this—the solemnly sinister music, the voice of Diskin talking about politicians who want black-and-white options when all he ever saw were shades of gray, the footage of satellite surveillance tracking an automobile through city streets until it meets with an incoming missile—makes The Gatekeepers an unsettling movie.
It’s doubly so, in fact—unsettling in the story it tells, but also unsettling in the way it tells it. Is the satellite footage we see the real thing, or is it a clever CGI mock-up—albeit one portraying an actual drone strike? If it is, in fact, a simulation—representing history rather than presenting it—what does that suggest about the words Moreh shares, in his 102-minute movie, out of the reported 70 hours of interviews he conducted?
To be sure, the six former Shin Bet chiefs seem to stand behind the movie, with no suggestion that their frank and revealing remarks are taken out of context. Moreh eschews the more obvious agitprop buffoonery of Michael Moore, but he has an agenda. The Israeli right, he suggests, is the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, and he juxtaposes images so that Benjamin Netanyahu (whom he plainly despises) is visually implicated in the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (whom Moreh regarded as Israel’s last best hope) by a Jewish right-wing radical.
Such touches, though, are rare. Moreh’s model is the more subtly persuasive Errol Morris of The Fog of War, a particular favorite of his. Not incidentally, it’s also greatly admired by Ami Ayalon, the first of Shin Bet’s former heads to sit for Moreh’s cameras (Ayalon then helped the director secure interviews with his other colleagues).
The Gatekeepers’ thesis, simply put, is that the extended occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, in place since Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, is a quagmire threatening long-term disaster for Israel. All of the Shin Bet heads interviewed, like Moreh himself, favor Israel’s engagement with the Palestinians and the establishment of a two-state solution. Their attitude toward Israel’s political past leadership ranges from respect to disdain, always tinged with a rueful awareness that their own heads would roll if any scandal arose.
One head that rolled belonged to Avraham Shalom. During his Shin Bet tenure (1980-86), Shalom had a fearsome reputation, though now he looks almost grandfatherly. He resigned over an incident where he ordered the execution of two accused terrorists in custody, an act he now says was tacitly sanctioned by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. When that one hit the fan, Shalom was out while Peres stayed in. Now, when Shalom says that Israel’s approach to the West Bank and Gaza occupation has “no strategy, just tactics,” it carries weight.
It also carries weight when Shalom compares the occupation with the actions of Germany during World War II, a remark seized upon in reactions to Moreh’s documentary. Moreh himself, in interviews, is quick to deny that the Palestinians have been innocent victims of Israeli aggression—he cites Abba Eban’s famous remark that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” adding that the same is true of Israel in the ongoing conflict. Nevertheless, that sense of Israeli oppression is exactly the impression left by The Gatekeepers, a stance of righteous self-criticism sure to play well in the world at large. Whatever the provocation, the movie suggests, Israel’s reaction to it has been wrong in morality—and worse, self-defeating in practice.