The Agonists: Shin Bet vets ponder the Israeli state they've protected

Mar 14, 2013 at 4:00 am
Left to Right: Avraham Shalom, Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri, Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon
Left to Right: Avraham Shalom, Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri, Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon Photo by Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It's a cliché of the voting world that even the staunchest liberals — especially of the privileged, male variety — tend to drift rightward through middle age and beyond. Yesterday's protesters develop the libertarian malaise; its progressives seek to fence in their fiefdoms and tax-proof their stock portfolios.

Not so the members of Shin Bet, Israel's renowned intelligence agency and security force. In The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated interrogation of six former heads of the agency, the most expansive of the documentary's many provocative assertions is that Shin Bet men age to the left — and become more critical of Israel.

Why this might be so is the larger subject of Moreh's searching, engrossing, and stylish inquiry, another contribution to the informal truth and reconciliation campaign being waged by a growing number of Israeli filmmakers. The Gatekeepers makes an apt companion for The Law in These Parts, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's 2012 examination of the ethical issues plaguing the rule of Israeli-written law in the Palestinian territories. Current Oscar nominee 5 Broken Cameras, co-directed by Israeli Guy Davidi, follows four years in the harrowed community of Palestinian Emad Burnat. And then there is Waltz With Bashir, former Israeli soldier Ari Folman's 2008 reckoning with his part in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of hundreds of Palestinians during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Where Folman's confessions are oblique and impressionistic, the subjects of The Gatekeepers describe their respective ambivalence with stinging clarity. They are direct and dispassionate, having seen and done too much to have use for rhetoric or the evasions of ideology.

Politicians, says Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet's leader from 2005 to 2011, prefer their problems distilled into binaries so that binary solutions might follow. But the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which began in the wake of 1967's Six-Day War, has produced endless problems in infinite shades of gray. Diskin, just a boy when that war took place, joined Shin Bet as a proud young man, wanting to be part of the solution. What he and the others here describe is their moral and political evolution as occupiers, and the devolution they believe is threatening Israel from within.

It makes for compelling viewing, but the enigmatic cross-hatching of insights that emerges from those big interviews makes The Gatekeepers something more essential. Moreh presents his subjects on a defensive plane: They are framed as witnesses, and at first, as we watch, it's hard to be certain for whom they are testifying.

Although he takes a prosecutorial tone in his rare interjections, Moreh is not running a kangaroo court. The men seem to welcome the opportunity to tell their stories and are given room to digress, extemporize, and reveal themselves. By turns they're forthcoming, cool-headed, blunt, and reflective. Viewers are invited into that same grayish space to reconcile talk of torture, targeted assassination, and collateral damage with deeper expressions of concern and regret.

Different personalities emerge. Described as a fearsome Shin Bet legend, Avraham Shalom appears today as an ironic old fellow in plaid and suspenders, his swollen hands floating up to his chin as though a punch were about to come or go. Shalom, who smiles through his observation that security forces need terrorism the same way that soldiers need to fight, cools when questioned about the summary execution, ordered by him, of two bus hijackers in 1984. Shalom's response, both defiant and flustered, suggests how much of the world would come to feel about this new kind of enemy, and what terrorists do and don't deserve under the law.

"These are philosophical questions, not practical ones," Yaakov Peri says at one point, sighing. The Shin Bet might be opposed to the Israeli occupation and settlements, but what bearing does that have on an incoming rocket? The situation's bloody circularity was compounded by the emergence within Israel of Jewish terrorist factions. The 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli Zionist divided and implicated the country. As the inside account given here suggests, those philosophical questions, having spawned another cycle of attack and retaliation, became harder to ignore.

The existence of The Gatekeepers is its own chief statement. You don't get the sense that it's any easier for these men to question Israel's leadership, or lack of leadership, from the safety of retirement. All of them insist that continuing to talk to Palestine is the only option; only Shalom, the eldest, goes further.

"We have become cruel to ourselves but mainly to the occupation," he says. The war on terror provides an excuse for this cruelty; drones and other remote tactics give it the illusion of hygiene. The question of how victory might look and feel is more and more a practical one, and it shrouds these six men like a deepening fog.