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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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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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