Consider the sort of situation Yuval Diskin faced as head of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. You have a chance to take out a known terrorist. The bad guy is in a vehicle with two other people, but you’re uncertain whether they’re innocent or also involved in terrorist activities. The prime minister wants to know: should he launch an attack or not?
The pressure in this scenario is biased towards action over inaction. “’Don’t do it’ seems easier, but it’s often harder,” Diskin says early on in the riveting, Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers. So much of the long-running mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be understood from that statement. When either side is in doubt, the default position has become “attack.”
For this film, director Dror Moreh interviewed six former directors of Shin Bet about their work. The stories they share amount to a survey of Israeli history since the pivotal Six-Day War of 1967, and they are troubling and terrifying.
Appearing as they do, talking heads in casual clothes, these men look far removed from their time in the corridors of power. Though not as confessional as was Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, they speak critically about their own decisions, even as some of them defend morally questionable choices.
Avraham Shalom, who led the agency from 1981 to 1986, seems at first avuncular and open, like he might be your loving grandfather. But soon we learn from the other men that Shalom was known as a bully during his tenure, which ended with his resignation following a cover-up of his decision to order the killing of two Palestinians who’d been taken into custody after hijacking a bus. Shalom is unapologetic about the affair, and remains cagey about his own role. His blank stare, in response to a question from the filmmaker that he clearly doesn’t care to answer, is chilling.
Coming to the discussion from a decidedly different viewpoint is Ami Ayalon, director of Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000. Ayalon mentions his initial reluctance to take the job, and he seems uncertain whether the work of Israeli security has done more harm than good in the effort to bring about peace.
After the historic Oslo Accord of 1993, Shin Bet was required to let up on what had been its close surveillance of Palestinian activities in Gaza and the West Bank. One result of this progress in the peace process, therefore, was an uptick in violence — both from Palestinian terrorists and Israeli extremists with no interest in a two-state solution.
The history of modern Israel is full of such contradictions. Time and again these men blame Israeli’s political leaders for undermining both peace and security efforts, as with the tacit acceptance of illegal settlements that have spurred on more conflict.
It’s Ayalon’s words that echo most forcefully at end of the film: “We’ve won every battle, but we’re losing the war.”