Tag Archives: Israel

What Constitutes Victory for Israel: A review of “The Gatekeepers”

Advance billing makes it known ahead of time that The Gatekeepers is a stark critique of Israeli policy from within. The film features unprecedented interviews with six former bosses of Shin Bet, Israel’s super-secret domestic intelligence agency.

Experiencing The Gatekeepers, however, exceeds all expectations. This is a bold film that systematically and coldly analyzes decades of Israeli security policy in dealing with Palestinians and the enemies that surround Israel.

The Shin Bet bosses use steely, unsentimental logic: whatever the justifications of the past and the present—Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is a failure.

They may have their hard-line critics in Israel and the United States, but these particular men are hard to dispute. They are deeply committed to Israel, hardened veterans of battle, and unassailable in their logic.

Together, the men – Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin– represent three decades of successes and failures in the Israeli war on terrorism. All have realized that even their successes have been a failure.

In the end we are left with deep questions about morality, the Israeli psyche and extremism on all sides.

The Shin Bet bosses by no means excuse Palestinian terror – although one of the former leaders switches from Hebrew to English to characterize the Palestinian view of Israeli security forces with the old saying: One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter.

Success, in any case, is a strange commodity. As one of the men realized after a chance conversation during peace talks with a Palestinian psychiatrist: for the Palestinians, “victory is to see you suffer.”

They realize that there has been and can be no end to the morass of the Middle East under current circumstances. Israeli actions, the Shin Bet leaders say, amount to  “no strategy, all tactics.”

The Gatekeepers portrays the horrors exacted by extremism on both sides. While there is a hopelessness in the generations of unending cycles of death, I still found myself uplifted by the fact that the movie exists at all. These men face forward and speak truths and the filmmaker, Dror Moreh, has the guts to tell the story.

The way out is spoken clearly by the oldest and perhaps the toughest of them all – Avraham Shalom, at 86, a veteran of the Palmach underground fighters that battled and killed British soldiers in the Israeli war for independence after World War II. His answer is a call for negotiations:

“Talk to everyone, even if they answer rudely. So that includes even Ahmadinejad, [Islamic Jihad, Hamas], whoever. I’m always for it. In the State of Israel, it’s too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies…Even if [the] response is insolent, I’m in favor of continuing. There is no alternative. It’s in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That’s how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn’t eat glass and he sees that I don’t drink oil.”

Israeli is the democracy that has allowed the filmmaker Moreh to make this film, even though the Israeli government is outraged and calls on Israeli filmmakers to practice self-censorship.

(By the way, as for the Oscars, I loved the film, Searching for Sugar Man, which won for best documentary against The Gatekeepers and another Israel political film, 5 Broken Cameras. Awards are awards but The Gatekeepers is unsurpassable in its strength and merits.)

Are there enough Israelis to listen and respond to the pragmatic reality that brought The Gatekeepers out of the shadows to the stage? I don’t know.

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Iran and Argentina: Such a (bizarre) deal.

The Argentine government, under President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has signed an odd accord with Iran to conduct a so-called “truth commission” that would investigate the 1994 bombing of the AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people died and hundreds were wounded in the attack.Atentado_AMIA

In 2007, Argentine won Interpol indictments of six suspects in the case. Members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization, and the Iranian government were among the suspects.

The new Argentine-Iranian deal appears to abandon that. As an Argentine journalist, FABIÁN BOSOER, and a New School professor,   FEDERICO FINCHELSTEIN, warn in the New York Times, the truth commission has no teeth:

The problem is that any recommendations by the commission would be nonbinding; moreover, some of the suspects in the attack are now high-ranking Iranian officials — including the sitting defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi — and therefore untouchable. Indeed, Iran has repeatedly refused to cooperate with Argentine investigators and ignored international warrants for the arrest of senior Iranian officials believed to have taken part in planning the bombing.

Two ironies in the story come to mind:

  • Nestor Kirchner, Kirchner’s late husband and former president, became emotional when I asked him about the AMIA investigation shortly after he came to office in 2003. Argentina, he said, would never rest until the culprits were found. He recalled his own past, having been himself a victim of human rights abuses himself during Argentina’s dirty war. 
  • The principal Argentine official responsible for the Iran deal is Hector Timerman, the foreign minister. Timerman, a veteran journalist, is the son of Jacobo Timerman. The elder Timerman, who died in 1999, was also a victim of abuse at the hands of the right-wing Argentine military.

The younger Timerman once said:

“If we don’t solve the problem of the AMIA — who placed the bomb, the
local connection and if there was a political cover-up — people will think
that Argentina is a place where we don’t punish those who commit horrendous
crimes and it will open the door to new attacks.”

Will the new deal with Iran help determine culprits and punishment? Not likely.

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Back to the Future: Hillary and the Prospects for Middle East Negotiations

As Hillary Clinton arrives in the Middle East, there are hopes of a truce between Gaza and Israel.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Burma

Whether or not a ceasefire holds, it may be a case of Back to the Future. The Middle East could be arriving at one of those crossroads in which real negotiations, international pressure and the legacy of leaders offer tantalizing hope.

Hamas has been hurling rockets at Israel for months – a brutal form of 52-card pickup: throw hundreds of cards in the air and see where they land.

Israel lashed out in frustration and began retaliating with a Biblical variant: not eye for an eye, but an eye for many more in return.

It makes no difference when outsiders draw up sides. If the goal is peace, neither side can sustain a policy of attacks and counterattacks. Negotiations require outside pressure and mediation led by the United States.

Hillary Clinton returns to the Middle East as part of an administration that has four more years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his neo-con friends in Washington tried and failed to wait out the Obama presidency.

If they try again, they must also consider the possibility of 2016: they could face Hillary Clinton once more with former President Bill Clinton always in the wings.

Back to the future:
–President Obama is looking to make a mark in history—the Middle East is ripe territory.
–The Clintons, having failed at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency to strike a Palestinian-Israeli deal—have every reason to try again. Hillary’s uncertain future exerts tacit pressure even after she leaves the State Department in January.
–Hamas and the Palestinians need to be pushed to moderation in the person of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, both eager to make a mark.
–Finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 63-years-old and facing January elections, also should be thinking legacy. One never knows. The founder of his extreme right-wing party, Menachem Begin, was 65 years old when he began negotiating with Egypt and finally signed the Camp David Accords.

Generations of violence, misery and death must end. The future could break with the past.

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Looking ahead to President Obama’s Bully Pulpit

Preliminary thoughts about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The elimination of Osama bin Laden warranted jubilation, public demonstrations and cheers, dampened by somber reminders of Sept. 11, 2001. Americans recognized the obvious – This was a historic victory. President Obama said it well:

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies.  The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.
Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.  There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.  We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.
As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam.  I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.  Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.  So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Bin Laden leaves the stage in May 2011, but his operational capacity was limited if not eliminated years before his death. He existed as a symbol of terror. It is hard to think that anyone could rise to the same level, anytime soon.

His death now is as strong a blow to international terror as it would have been years earlier. Striking down the symbol will be accompanied by newly energized pursuit of his number two – Ayman al-Zawahiri – and the estimated several hundred al Qaeda fighters along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Questions and Answers


How could bin Laden have lived in plain site for so long, one kilometer from a Pakistani military post?

We don’t know yet, but U.S. officials won’t want to beat up on the Pakistanis. The civil government in Islamabad is a weak enterprise, and its stability depends on domestic public perception. The Pakistani military and intelligence service – ISI – are a power unto themselves and comprise a complicated, rivalry-ridden command structure. U.S. officials are giving the Pakistanis a chance to save face. The Obama administration will keep working with Pakistani officials on future operations of joint interest – decreasing violence, enhancing political and economic stability.


What about increased vigilance and retaliation?

Intelligence and police forces have been doing a fine job over the last decade to counteract, block and limit the scope of terror attacks. The system isn’t fool-proof, but there has never been a reason to live in fear. [Fortunately, Tom Ridge’s foolish color-coded alert warnings have gone the way of the Edsel.]

Will the death of bin Laden accelerate demands for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Probably so. However, the Obama administration will take some time, looking for a changes in the wind–the flagging ability and will of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to pursue their goals.

What policies should be on the agenda?

–Israel and the Palestinians–Seizing the moment to push the Israelis and the Palestinians toward an equitable peace. Presidential persuasion is a key—a successful compromise is needed. A resolution for the West Bank and Gaza has always been a major recipe toward drying up the seedbeds of future terrorism.
The U.S. Abroad–—pursuing further efforts to improve the U.S. image abroad. That image could hardly have been worse when President Obama took office after the multiple failures of the Bush administration. Obama can use the moment and the bully pulpit to push recalcitrant players toward real mediation and compromise for peace in the Middle East.
–Middle East Uprisings–Hard work to land fairly in each of the civil uprisings burning in the Middle East. And taking care that Yemen evolves peacefully, and with a future government that continues to fight al Qaeda cells there with U.S. support.
–Kashmir — Push for peace talks and negotiations between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, supported by the United States and Europe. Success feeds world peace and creates the prospects for a more friendly relationship with Pakistan.

The bill of particulars is long, but President Obama has checked off one of the greatest action items he may ever face.

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