Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Alternate Title:  The Men on the Wall

One sentence synopsis:   The six retired heads of the Shin Bet discuss the nature of Israel and Palestine's enduring conflict.

Note from the Author: This movie, and for that matter, this subject, defies facile divisions. As such, rather than review the movie in my traditional method, I will simply be expressing such thoughts as I have regarding it and its subject matter.

It has been years, literal years, since I heard anything reasonable said on the subject of Israel and Palestine. Mention Israel, or for that matter Judaism in these parts, and you will more likely than not be treated to a virulent diatribe regarding the putrid evils of the state of Israel, all who support it, and if you are unlucky, Jews in general. And should one go to states such as Texas or Georgia, the mere suggestion that Israel is deserving of criticism will be met with violent opposition from those whose rejection of the Palestinians and all their works approaches almost religious levels of fervor. I have seen and heard the most horrific things being said to those who dared offer their opinions on the subject, and heard in turn truly vile distortions of reality, common sense, and human decency offered up in the guise of "analysis" of the situation in the Holy Land, both from talking heads and ordinary people. And yet, in the midst of all this vitriol and hate, along comes a film that asks no more than our attention for a couple hours, as half a dozen old men recount to us the way things are in Israel, how they got to be that way, and where, they believe, things should go from here.

The Sherut haBitachon haKlali, more commonly known by the Hebrew acronym Shin Bet, is Israel's lesser-known, but arguably more important secret service. If the Mossad is Israel's CIA, Shin Bet is their NSA, responsible for internal security, counterterrorism, and the protection of both the populace and senior officials from whatever threats might arise. The six men that this film introduces us to are the six living former heads of the organization, representing between them an unbroken line of succession covering the twenty-four years from 1988 to 2011. Before and during this period, these men oversaw and participated in every major Israeli counter-terrorist endeavor since the Six Day War of 1967, and the film consists of them talking about these experiences, no more, no less. From the establishment of networks of informers in the West Bank to the campaign of targeted assassinations against leaders of Hamas, through scandals, Intifadas, peace accords and terrorist attacks, the movie is simply the six leaders of Shin Bet explaining themselves in as much detail as they can, buttressed only on occasion by prompts from an unseen interviewer.

And what explanations they have. The film uses the evolution of Israel's relationship with Palestine and the on-again, off-again efforts towards or away from peace as its narrative thread, and the men describing what happened do so with a complete disregard for equivocation and codewords that is almost unheard of in modern politics. "Forget about morality in a War on Terror," says one. "Find morality in terrorists first." Yet another admits, almost with a smile, that to the Palestinians, of course, he was a terrorist, something he came to understand and even accept. Descriptions of torture techniques used against recalcitrant Palestinian prisoners stray perhaps a bit from the mark, what with references to "moderate physical compulsion", yet the heads admit that there were incidents where men died under torture. Some express regret, even anger that such a thing should happen. Others defend the fact that these men were holding literal "ticking time-bomb" information that led to saving dozens of civilian lives. One outright admits "I was tired of seeing live terrorists in court." But none try to duck the issue.

It is, of course, impossible to bring up the subject of Israel without bringing ones own worldview and opinions into it, for me as much as anyone. Pro-Israeli as I am, though not to the point of rendering the state immune to criticism, I found, I will admit, much within the film to confirm what I previously believed. The movie glances at, but does not belabor the point that Shin Bet's actions, however misguided or foolish, were generally aimed at reducing or eliminating civilian deaths, primarily in Israel, but also in Palestine, particularly as the extreme right in Israel began stoking its own flames of hatred and madness. By contrast Hamas, and the other organizations Shin Bet was pitted against, were explicitly aimed at causing the maximum number of civilian deaths, Israeli or otherwise, in the service of goals related to a permanent state of war and genocide. One of the officers recounts how he met his counterpart from the PLO in a peace conference in London, and was told that the Palestinians would ultimately win, if only because "our victory is to make you and your children suffer." Two more explain how a pair of botched operations and situations (the extra-judicial killing of two Palestinian bus hijackers, and the deaths of a dozen civilians during an air strike on a Hamas cell) resulted in their immediate resignations, and the fall of the Israeli governments which oversaw them. If this was Justice, it was a thin sort for the relatives of those who died, yet the men point out that had Hamas performed such actions, the consequences would have been lionization and praise, followed by a repetition of the attacks as often as possible. That said, does the simple fact that Israel acted in a more forthright manner than Hamas (a low bar if ever there was one) excuse such actions? None of the men present think so. Several become angry, furious even, over the lapses and errors that led such things to occur. None, to my recollection, attempt to pass the buck.

Yet for all the confirmation I received from this film, I received plenty of surprises, checks, and disabusals as well. The men at the heart of the Shin Bet see a very different side of the major figures of the Middle East than the rest of us do, and I was surprised how much variance there was between these perceptions. Figures like Golda Meir, lionized by the Israeli left as a champion of peace, or Menachim Begen, who shared a Nobel peace prize for signing peace with Egypt, are considered by these men to have been completely uninterested in the Palestinians, their grievances, or the peace process. Begen is remembered by one to have bragged about how many settlements he had overseen the foundation of. Conversely, right-wing figures such as Ariel Sharon, remembered nowadays as a blood-drinking warmonger, is portrayed here as having had the most concern of any Israeli PM over the collateral effects of the targeted assassination theory. At one point, one of the Shin Bet directors speaks of pleading with him to authorize a strike to destroy much of Hamas' leadership, insisting that to hold back would be to guarantee more Israeli dead. Sharon refused to attack. Other revelations included the sheer extent of contact between Shin Bet and the relevant Palestinian security authorities, with whom they seem to have worked fairly closely, through Intifadas and even wars. "We are not helping you for your sake," one of the heads was told by a Palestinian officer. "We are doing it so that we can one day have a state." Much time is spent discussing the rise of Jewish terrorists within Israel, and Shin Bet's efforts to head them off, defusing, among other things, a plot to literally blow up the Dome of the Rock. Other attacks were not defused in time, including the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli ultranationalist, something several of them regard as their greatest failure.

Is this movie biased in favor of Israel? Maybe. I don't think so. It regards the aspirations of the Palestinian people as self-evidently justified, talks of the various upheavals and intifadas as not merely natural, but obvious and predictable outgrowths of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. "We as good as planned for it" says one, throwing his hands up in disgust. Is it one-sided? Yes, but the purpose is not to produce artificial 'balance', but simply to illustrate who these faceless men were, and what they think of what they did. And indeed, the opinions we receive are far more balanced than one might accept. Every single one of these former terrorist-hunting heads of intelligence, men whose lives were sought by their enemies, and who sought and took the lives of dozens and hundreds of would-be terrorists, is publicly and unequivocally in favor of advancing peace by any means. "Coming out of this job, you naturally become something of a leftist" says one, arguing in favor of shunting Israel away from its religious wing and fulfilling the two-state solution for Palestine, whatever the short-term cost. Of all six men, the one most militant in defense of his policies, also makes the claim that Israel should talk to "everyone, absolutely everyone, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, even Ahmadinejad," if it has the slightest chance of accomplishing anything. All of them make distinctions between the 'tactics' of their operations, which they claim were highly successful, and the overall 'strategy' of long-term peace, which they claim was entirely non-existent for most of their tenures. "Killing them [Hamas leaders] did reduce attacks, but did not produce moderation," admits one. The purpose of the film is not to argue for facile solutions, though some are suggested, nor to beat drums of Israeli nationalism or terrorism or any other hot button issue. It is, and remains, six men with a unique perspective, discussing their work like adults. Insofar as they can be self-critical, they make the attempt. Most men in their position would not.

Roger Ebert and I have disagreed many times on this little sounding board of mine, but in this matter we are of uniform opinion. In his review, he called the movie the most pro-Israeli film he had ever seen, specifically because it was so practical. "In recognizing Palestinian points of view (though without endorsing them), it sees Palestinian self-determination as synonymous with Israeli peace." Does it tell the whole story? Probably not. But unlike most rhetoric on the subject, it at least tells part of the story, a story that, if we are to grapple with this issue at all, deserves to be understood. In the end, we are left with six old men, whose job it has been to shield Israel from her enemies, expressing a desire to see an end to it all through dialogue and compromise. Insofar as it expresses these wishes, it is unexpectedly thus, as Ebert himself claimed, the most hopeful film I have seen on the subject.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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