Dror Moreh's “The Gatekeepers” is an extraordinary examination of power and regret as told by six men who have been at the front lines of one of history's most enduring and far-reaching conflicts.
These former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal secret service, have served as top advisers to the Israeli government as it has struggled and largely failed to negotiate lasting peace agreements with the Palestinians over disputed territories in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. During their shadowy tenures, these men have facilitated state-sanctioned violence against presumed Arab terrorists, and one is held singularly responsible for failing to prevent the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. All have come to reconsider their hardline views on Israel's territorial claims and advocate for a more forthcoming dialogue with Palestine, and have spoken on camera for the first time in "The Gatekeepers" to express their deep concerns for the future of Israel.
Moreh and his filmmaking team shot and edited “The Gatekeepers” over the course of three years, capturing more than 70 hours of interviews and using roughly 1,000 hours of archival footage and CGI recreations of critical events like the 1984 execution-style killing of Palestinian bus hijackers. Those controversial killings led to the resignation of then-Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom, who provides the film's most chilling commentary, at one point comparing Israel's occupation force to Germany's in World War II. “We’ve become cruel,” he says.
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Moreh, an ardent leftist, said “The Gatekeepers” was produced in utmost secrecy. “I didn't want anyone to know about anything,” he said during a recent interview at Sony Classic headquarters in New York City. “I knew I had dynamite in my hands.”
Indeed, “The Gatekeepers” is an explosive critique of the Israeli government's tactics in preserving a sovereign state and battling its foes. Still, those expecting a primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should look elsewhere: The Oscar-nominated documentary provides little historical context leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, and those unfamiliar with the conflict may find themselves struggling to make connections. But one thing is clear: Barring a dramatic shift in policy, the former Shin Bet heads are convinced that Israel is on the road to utter catastrophe. “We’re winning all the battles, but losing the war,” says Avi Ayalon, who led the Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000.
Moreh is a staunch critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an enthusiastic advocate for a two-state solution; but as he said in another recent interview, such an agreement would and should not involve voting rights for West Bank Palestinians within Israel. The six former Shin Bet heads in Moreh's film have, too, come to embrace a two-state solution, though with little hope that a peaceful reconciliation can be achieved. “When you leave the Shin Bet, you become a bit of a leftist,” said Yaakov Peri, who headed the agency from 1988 to 1995.
“The Gatekeepers” is an unabashedly political film, certain to invite accusations of propaganda from its critics. But while Moreh is passionate about his agenda, he need not manipulate his subjects, or even his audience, to push it forward. The regret and despair in the words and on the faces of the men speak for themselves, and for Moreh.
“These are not the kind of people who you coerce to say things or who you can take out of context,” Moreh said. Yet, that is exactly what the director says has been accused of. A minister of the government recently spoke on an Israeli radio show, charging Moreh with twisting his subjects' words to fit his agenda. But shortly after, Ayalon appeared on the same broadcast, and insisted the six men stood 100 percent behind the movie.
“You cannot argue with them,” Moreh said. “What would you say – that they don't know what they are talking about?”
The former Shin Bet leaders saw “The Gatekeepers” for the first time at the Jerusalem International Film Festival this past summer. They attended over two evenings of screenings, surrounded by their families and those involved in the film – but no press, Moreh said. “They had emotional reactions,” he explained, later joking, “but I think they would say, ‘My name is Barack Obama and I approve this ad.’”
Moreh’s demeanor lacks the intensity of the documentary itself, which grabs you by the throat. He is animated and jocular as he discusses his Oscar prospects, clearly enjoying that sprinkling of glamour the Academy’s attention has afforded “The Gatekeepers,” but not taking the awards season run anywhere near as seriously as his crusade to call international attention to what he sees as Israel’s imminent self-destruction. He is candid and forthright in his harsh criticism of Netanyahu, calling him Israel’s “worst ever” prime minister and “the biggest danger to Israelis,” and speaks gravely of his continued devastation at the loss of Prime Minister Rabin. His assassination on Nov. 4, 1995 -- Moreh’s birthday -- was “the most horrible night of my life,” the director said.
Moreh is among the many Israelis who believe that the best hope for a peaceful reconciliation with Palestine died with Rabin, who was gunned down by a law student affiliated with a right-wing Jewish extremist group who later said he killed the prime minister in an attempt to prevent a negotiated solution.
“Before Nov. 4, 1995, no one would believe that a Jew would come assassinate the prime minister,” Moreh said. No one, that is, except Carmi Gillon, whose story reads something like a Greek tragedy, with the Shin Bet leader playing Cassandra to Rabin’s Priam. During his brief tenure, Gillon concentrated on what he perceived to be a critical security threat posed by right-wing Israeli extremists, but remained unable to convince Rabin and other Israeli leaders of the danger. In “The Gatekeepers,” Gillon is visibly distraught as he speaks of his failed attempts to persuade Rabin to wear a bullet-proof vest, holding himself directly accountable for the prime minister’s death.
“Whatever he says to himself, the fact is that he shouted above every tree,” Moreh said. “He said it to everyone who could hear.”
Still, Moreh continued, “He is the one who was responsible for the security of the prime minister.”
Though Rabin’s assassin is behind bars, he was a tool of extremist groups, who Moreh insists continue to pose grave danger to Israel’s security. The inciters of violence “are still out there, continuing to spread their poison without shame.”
Moreh spoke of the illogic of the U.S. government’s unyielding support of Israel through the decades, citing starkly different approaches to the conflict from one Israeli administration to the other.
“How can you support Ehud Olmert, the last prime minister of Israel who was for a dialogue with Palestine, who spoke with the Palestinians and tried to create an atmosphere for peace, and at the same time support, in the same way, Netanyahu with the same intensity?” Moreh asked.
Still, Moreh is a strong supporter of Obama, and said he believes that America is a “true friend” to Israel – or at least has the potential to be. He said he hopes that Obama will “act more precisely, act more aggressively” towards what Moreh sees as Israel’s self-destructive policies in his second term.
“If you are a true friend … and you think that your friend is driving a car directly into a wall, what would you do? How would you help him … would you push the gas?” Moreh asked. “Or will you tell him, listen, stop for a second, maybe shift gears and swerve to the right so that you don’t smash your head into a wall?"