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The Gatekeepers – Israel’s Voice of Sanity?

August 15, 2013

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators came together for yet another attempt at reaching a peaceful settlement, I watched The Gatekeepers in a rare showing at our local cinema.

This is the Israeli documentary released last year in which the director, Dror Moreh, interviewed the current head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, and five of his predecessors. None of them had spoken publicly about their work before. Although they also addressed acts of terror by Jewish extremists, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, most of the conversations were about events in occupied Palestine since the Six-Day War in 1967.

The Gatekeepers is worth a dozen documentaries by foreign filmmakers about Palestine – good as they might be – because if there is ever to be a settlement between Israel and Palestine, it is not the converted that will make it happen, but the unconverted.

In his interview about the movie at the New York Film Festival, Moreh stated that he had used 2% of the interview footage he recorded with the six Shin Bet heads. Could he have made a different movie from those interviews, in which he might have presented the men as dark, sinister spymasters intent on maintaining the status quo? We will probably never know. But in Moren’s movie, they came over as a very different breed.

These guys were not action heroes. Though each of them saw action, in their thoughtful reflections they were more Smiley than Spooks. They come over as realistic, rational and undogmatic, unlike the politicians that several of them clearly despise.

Is that because the business of intelligence demands those qualities? I have seen them in others – notably in Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who for many years was the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service. And since the heads of Britain’s security services have been allowed a public voice, the same qualities are revealed as evident in them too.

In contrast, the heads of the CIA and National Security Agency in the US are political appointments – not necessarily politically partisan, but often parachuted in from other walks of life. The military, the State Department, the Defence Department for example. They owe their appointments to a president of one political colour or another. Does that make them less effective as leaders of security services, or more?

Perhaps the difference is that leaders of Shin Bet and MI5 have experience from the ground up that some of the political appointments lack. Did the likes of Leon Panetta and Condoleeza Rice bring to the United States the deep understanding of the Vietnamese, Afghans and Iraqis that the Shin Bet heads have of the Palestinians, or the MI5 heads have of Northern Irish republicans and Britain’s home-grown Jihadis? Some, like John Brennan, the current head of the CIA, clearly spent time with their feet on the ground. Others rarely left the corridors of Washington or the groves of academe.

You could argue that the comparison is unfair, because whereas the US has a finger in political and military pies across the world, Shin Bet and MI5 have a much narrower focus, and therefore greater opportunity to develop deep expertise. But when you listen to the Shin Bet talking about the quality of human intelligence they developed without the super-computers of the National Security Agency, and compare it with a lamentable lack of information gathered on the ground by the world’s most powerful nation before the US and its allies lumbered into Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that they failed to understand what they were dealing with and made fundamental mistakes.

If other Middle East leaders took note of what the interviewees said about the futility of endless conflict, they could save themselves and their people decades of heartache. The trouble is that there are few leaders in the region worthy of the name.

The Gatekeepers shows that cinema can be a force for real change, rather than merely a reflection of fashion and social trends. As Moreh said in the New York interview, two of the people at the first screening in Israel were settlers who told him that as the result of what they saw they would be reconsidering whether the settlements were in Israel’s best interest. Not many, agreed, but how many others have changed their way of thinking after listening to those officials with unimpeachable credentials who were entrusted with their security?

The Israel-Palestine struggle is not the only cycle of conflict in the region, as the sectarian unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq graphically demonstrates. And in each area where ancient enmities periodically bubble to the surface, there is the potential for another Syria, especially when the conflict is fuelled by foreign interests.

The events in Egypt over the past two days, in which hundreds of protesters were killed by the army, most likely represents the birth of another cycle. In a year, ten years or even twenty years, there will be a reckoning of one sort or another, be it campaigns of terror or general uprisings similar to the Palestinian intifadas. Because Egypt is a country of 80 million citizens, the reckoning is likely to be on a massively larger scale than in Palestine.

So it’s not just the politicians and citizens of Israel that should take heed of what the Shin Bet six have said. There are times when you have to talk to your worst enemy. The alternative is endless eruptions of tit-for tat conflict.

The problem is that once you have made the first move (in the case of Egypt, you could take the view that the first act was instigated by the Mubarak regime in 2011, though others would argue that it began with the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood both by Sadat and his successor), it becomes progressively harder for the protagonists to set aside their grudges and agree a settlement that breaks the cycle.

If you are naturally inclined to deal with protest through the barrel of a gun, which tends to be the way of military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes unused to being challenged on the street, you risk causing untold damage that could have been avoided by talking to the protesters before things get out of hand. The question that is always asked after the fact is whether the authorities reached for weapons after all possibilities of a peaceful solution were exhausted. When bodies appear in the streets, it is usually too late for compromise.

The bottom line for Israel is that the stakes have never been higher. There are many entities that are happy to use the Palestine-Israel deadlock for their own political purposes – to distract attention away from dissent in their back yards, to demonstrate their influence in the region and to pursue their long-term foreign policy agendas. The less stable those entities become, the greater the chance that they will seek to stir the Palestine pot.

The Gatekeepers was released before last year’s elections in Israel and the US presidential election. Did it, and the influence of the Shin Bet veterans, play a part in bringing the parties to the table? Netanyahu did not emerge from the film with much credit. Does he now realise that the time to make peace is now, or is the current process so much sham? Will the extremists on both sides wield their vetoes on cherished issues – such as the future of the settlements – that will prevent an agreement, as has been the case in the past? Or will they emulate Khomeini, when he agreed to the ending of the Iran-Iraq war with the words:

”Taking this decision was more deadly than taking poison. I submitted myself to God’s will and drank this drink for his satisfaction.”

Don’t bet on it. Everything points to the hard-headed pragmatists of Shin Bet having their work cut out in the years to come, while the less pragmatic but equally hard-headed politicians continue to preside over an Israel with an increasingly uncertain future.

To understand why, watch The Gatekeepers. It’s now available on DVD. Along with Wadjda, it’s one of the finest movies you’re likely to see in 2013.

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