Whether from the left or the right, the most pointed criticism of Israeli policy tends to come from within Israel itself. The Gatekeepers is no exception. What distinguishes it are the people doing the talking – six former heads of Shin Bet, the country’s secret service, who have never spoken of their work on camera before – and what they have to say. Certainly, in the many hours of interviews conducted by director Dror Moreh, they say a lot. Lips once sealed have truly loosened, but that proves both a blessing and a bane. As a political testament, the result is revealing and important. Yet as a documentary (despite making the recent Oscar short list), it wanders here, there and everywhere – long on intensity but short on focus.
The keepers, charged with overseeing Israel’s war on terror, held their posts from 1980 through to 2011, arriving at the job through different routes and serving politicians from across the spectrum. However, in appearance and manner, they’re united by a cold-eyed pragmatism along with a keen intelligence. Far from bureaucrats, these are bosses who, in every case, you wouldn’t want to meet in an interrogation room on the receiving end of the questions.
Indeed, all were in the business of making, quite literally, life-or-death decisions – should this guy be targeted, this car exploded, that bomb dropped, that reprisal sanctioned? – which they discuss with a fascinating mixture of dispassionate detachment and still-fresh urgency. For them, ethics are necessarily relative and situational – collateral damage should be avoided unless it can’t. And failures come with the high-stakes territory, whether it’s the failure to predict the first intifada or to prevent Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. In office, they may have differed in degree but not in kind: They’re hard men making hard choices. Says one: “Politicians prefer binary solutions – do it, don’t do it. What’s unnatural is the power you have.” Adds another: “Those moments end up etched deep inside you and, when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”
I haven’t distinguished the voices because, essentially, neither does Moreh. Instead, while stirring in archival footage of suicide bombings and uprisings and demonstrations by Palestinians and Israelis alike, he seems intent on building a consensus among the six talking heads, of extracting from them what Errol Morris obtained from Robert McNamara in The Fog of War – if not a mea culpa, then at least a revisionist assessment. Yet, en route, the doc often jumps haphazardly from specific incidents (the Bus 300 killings) to general cases (the Oslo Accord) without stopping to fully supply either the background or the context.
Eventually, though, that consensus does emerge, and this is where the film makes its potent statement. Whatever their personal differences, the gatekeepers shared an insider’s view and, from that perspective, have come to some startlingly similar conclusions. Among them these. First, they have scant faith in politicians who, regardless of stripe, prefer to fixate on tactical trees while ignoring the strategic forest. Second, although anti-Israeli terrorists remain their mortal enemies, they are just as worried about the radical right inside Israel, especially given their political connections and clout. Third, they regret the growing paradox of Israel’s armed forces, that it’s now both “a people’s army” and “a brutal occupation force.” Finally, without exception, they support a two-state solution, and lament those missed opportunities when “there was good faith from the Palestinians but not from our side.”
That latter opinion is surprising and it’s not. After all, as part of their Shin Bet credentials, most of them speak Arabic; some have even lived among the enemy, in the refugee camps, alert to signs of danger and motives for unrest. There, they learned what to fear and what to trust and, in their view, the reasons to trust prevail. So one last conclusion. Again, the one speaks for the many when he recalls his belief, as a child, that at the end of the corridors of power, in a brightly lit room, there dwelled a wise person. As an adult, he never found that person. Behind the gates, on both sides, the search continues and the hopeful wait.