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Interview: The Gatekeepers Director Dror Moreh

By (February 21, 2013) No Comment

Dror+Moreh+GatekeepersIsraeli director Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers comes at the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from a previous silent (and secretive) angle: Through the eyes of six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security or “secret service” agency.

The Shin Bet organization has, over the past four decades, been at the front line of dealing with internal terrorism from both Palestinian and Jewish violent extremists.

The six former Shin Bet leaders Dror talks to recount in stark and startling clarity their experiences working for various Israeli administrations, their frustration with failures of leadership, and their own participation in brutality, torture, and assassination. And each man also comes away, having seen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up close and bloodily, with the belief that Israel’s current policy is headed in the wrong direction–toward self-destruction–and must take steps to correct its course and approach.

I sat down in Chicago to talk with Moreh on january 21, the morning of Barack Obama’s Second Inauguration–in fact, the post-Inauguration events were playing out on a TV screen behind me as we spoke about the film, the Shin Bet leaders, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Moreh feels America–specifically Obama–can and should do about it.

The Gatekeepers is playing in select theaters across the country.

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Avraham Shalom (1980 – 1986)

What made you approach this subject from this angle with these men?

Dror Moreh: I wanted to create a movie where nobody could challenge its conclusions. Basically the Shin Bet is the organization that deals with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If there are Israeli people who understand the deepest corners of that conflict, it’s these people speaking in this film. There is no one in the Israeli society who understand that conflict better than them. They have been there from the beginning. They have used force and done everything you would find in a textbook about how to achieve security and intelligence among the Palestinians and the extreme right-wing Jewish groups. If there’s anyone who understands it, it’s these people.

I thought that if I could create a film that came from the perspective of all the living heads of that organization, it would have a substance that nobody can wave off or say these men don’t understand what they’re speaking about, or dismiss them as bleeding-heart leftists.

What differences and similarities did you find among the six men, who range in age from their 50s to their 80s, in terms of their attitudes, temperaments, and politics?

Moreh: I was shocked at how much they are different from one another. Each one is completely different from the other—there is no one who is similar to the other one, really it’s amazing. If I’m trying to find something common to all of them, I cannot find it. Only one thing: that they are all very, very worried now. They are worried deeply about the state of Israel and where it is going. They are also all very much pragmatists. They know and they understand, and they say, “Okay, where will be go from here?” They are not leftists or rightist believers—they are pragmatists.

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Yaakov Peri (1988 – 1995)

I am much bleaker than the Shin Bet directors in terms of what I see for the future. They’re more optimistic. Although when I asked them, they said that in order to solve an intense problem like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you need very strong leadership on both sides at the same time, which is what makes it so difficult. If we would have very strong leadership on both sides, it would still be almost impossible to solve that.

These men all seemed to have entered the army or the Shin Bet as devoted believers in the cause, and committed to fighting for Israel’s security. At what point in their careers or lives did they seem to change their attitudes and ideas about the conflict and how to solve it?

Moreh: I think it’s when they retire. They all like to say they felt this way during their terms in office, but I think when serving in an organization like Shin Bet, you have to do the work and follow the structure. But when you retire you can gain a much bigger perspective on the bigger issue and picture, which you hope your leaders will have. As they say in the movie, it’s tactics versus strategy. Basically when they’re working, they have to think tactically, even though they try to think strategically in terms of the desired impact of their actions.

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Ami Ayalon (1996 – 2000)

For example, Ami Ayalon was head of Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, which was Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term in office as Prime Minister, followed by Ehud Barak, and basically saw the collapse of the peace process. When Ayalon speaks about those two—Netanyahu and Barak—and about the lack of leadership and the lack of seeing strategically, only seeing tactically, it’s heartbreaking because you understand how much of missed opportunity was there, that could have led to a better future. And you understand what it means when you are acting tactically not strategically.

After an attack on a Jewish settler, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to build a settlement – a nice Jewish response to the attack. Ami Ayalon said he was in that room when it was debated, and he said to the Prime Minister, “If I’m here as the head of Shin Bet, I can only speak to how to provide more security to the settlers there. More patrols, more lights for safety and security. But it is not my role to speak to a political issue, building a new settlement. But I can tell you that in terms of the Palestinians, I cannot measure the long-term effect, because in their point of view, every time you build a settlement it pushes further down the road their prospect for a Palestinian state. So you are shooting the heart of the peace process. This is your decision, you’re the Prime Minister, but I cannot participate in that debate.”

In the film, one of the Shin Bet heads says that, “War becomes work”—that when your job is dealing with conflict, you see more conflict as a job opportunity. And one of them recalls a Palestinian telling him, “We just want to see you suffer.” So at some point the conflict becomes engrained at a cultural level as these attitudes become woven into peoples’ lives on both sides. When you’re looking at entrenched, self-destructive cultural attitudes like that, how does a film like this work toward changing the culture?

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Carmi Gillon (1994 – 1996)

Moreh: I wanted to create a film that would raise that kind of debate, to move them the way I wanted to. I think that culture, especially movies—which I consider the most amazing art form that exists, incorporating all the other art forms inside one piece of art—has a task, a duty. And documentaries, definitely do. The film is moving people—I can certainly see that in Israel. My email account is getting 600, 700 emails a day from people who’ve watched the film, who I’ve never met, who are telling me it moved them, it changed the way they look at the issue, it’s opened some eyes. I think that it’s a long process—I don’t think you can change someone instantly, especially in Israel, which is such a political entity, but I think you have the ability to do that. These six men have come and told us, “Enough, we could be in a better place now, and there is someone to blame for that.” And people are listening.

I don’t want to be too general, but the personality of the person is imperative. Obama is the best thing that could have happened to Israel in a long time, in my point of view. I want to be clear: Benjamin Netanyahu today is the biggest enemy to the state of Israel, the biggest threat to the existence of the state of Israel, because in my point of view, he is not a leader who understands the danger Israel is in. True friends do not have to say “yes” to whatever you want to do. You have to say, “This is wrong, what you are doing is dangerous.” And this is what Barack Obama is doing for Israel. I envy you Americans that you have a true leader. I thought Obama made a lot of mistakes in his first year concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he understands much better now than he did before, what leadership means. He understands you have to sit and speak before you use military force. I do not see that in Netanyahu—I see him as floppy, going whichever the wind blows.

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Avi Dichter (2000 – 2005)

As the Inauguration plays right now on the TV behind us, what do you feel Americans need to better understand about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? 

Moreh: To solve a problem like the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, you need outstanding leadership on both sides at the same time, and even then it’s very, very hard. The fact is that every time the peace process moves closer, extremists from both sides pull it back. Both in the Muslim-Palestinian society and in the Jewish-Israeli society the extremists use terrorist attacks to hinder that process. I spoke with some of the Gatekeepers about this, and if you ask me now, the only person who can solve the Israeli-Palestinian is being inaugurated behind us right now. He can do that in only one way—come with a plan. Everybody knows how this conflict has to end. Israel has to go back to the 1967 line; no right of return for the Palestinians; and Jerusalem becomes, I would hope, something like the Vatican—a holy place that is not ruled or divided.

Everybody knows this is what has to happen. The only question is how many people will die in the process of getting there, if we can get there. Obama, with the support of Western society and the moderate Muslim countries, needs to come with a fixed plan that would say, “These are the terms,” and he would have one hand be an iron fist that holds a ten-ton—not one-ton, ten-ton—bomb, and in the other hand a carrot, a ten-ton carrot, and say to them, “Listen, this is the deal. No arguments, no discussion. If you accept, you get this carrot from the entire international community. And if you don’t accept this is the fist that is going to hit you like a brick.”

Yuval Diskin (2005 – 2011)

Yuval Diskin (2005 – 2011)

Without that, nothing will happen. In my point of view, the Israelis and Palestinians no longer have it within themselves to solve the problem, definitely not the current Israeli administration—they don’t have the power or the leadership or the temerity. So it has to come with pressure from the outside, and that pressure has to be very strong to solve it.

Because of the obligation that America has towards Israel, I think if America does not do that, it will be forced to intervene all the time. The clouds of the third intifada are gathering now—incidents are occurring here and there. The past five years have been mostly free of terrorism in Israel, but that period is coming to an end. Once terrorist attacks start up again in Israel, the response will be all tactics—security forces will have to expend a lot of power and create more animosity on the other side—all hell will break loose and there won’t be any way to make a larger deal. Maybe Obama doesn’t want to deal with solving the crisis right now—look at all the things he has to deal with now, here in America. But if he doesn’t, it will haunt him at the end of the day.