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“Most Israelis are not listening”

JERUSALEM — The Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” braids the recollections and reflections of six former chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, into a disturbing narrative of their country’s occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967. In the United States the confessions of these tough terrorist hunters have startled and provoked, fueling the criticism among Jewish liberals of the right-leaning Israeli government’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

But one of the subjects, Ami Ayalon — who followed his Shin Bet tenure with several years in Parliament — worries it will have less impact where it is most important, because “most Israelis who saw it are Israelis who are convinced.”

“Most Israelis are not listening,” Mr. Ayalon, who ran the Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, said in an interview. “When it is too tough, the easiest way to deal with it is to close our eyes and to close our ears.”


Here in Israel it has not exactly started a revolution. The issues it raises were not, for example, a factor in the elections on Tuesday. By last Sunday about 22,000 people here had seen it — a lot for an Israeli documentary but still a tiny fraction of the population of nearly eight million.
The message of “The Gatekeepers,” formed from the collective wisdom of the six living former Shin Bet leaders, is this:

The occupation is immoral and, perhaps more important, ineffective. Israel should withdraw from the West Bank as it did from the Gaza Strip in 2005. And the prospect of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict diminishes daily, threatening the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy.
(The film also confronts internal Jewish terrorism, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and a plot to blow up the Temple Mount in the 1980s.)
While public opinion polls show most Israeli Jews still support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, increasing numbers have lost faith that it could happen in their lifetimes.
“The question is whether those people who believe there is no one to talk with, nothing to talk about, and we are condemned to go on fighting and killing for the next 10 generations — and they are supported and empowered by our political community — whether they will be open to see the different view,” Mr. Ayalon said. “Probably it is too difficult.”

Dror Moreh, the 51-year-old director, said over coffee recently that its power is not so much the message as the messengers. He got the idea for “The Gatekeepers” while working on a 2008 documentary about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose chief of staff described a 2003 article in an Israeli newspaper that quoted Shin Bet leaders as critical in persuading Mr. Sharon, once called the father of the settlements, to evacuate those in the Gaza Strip. “The Fog of War,” Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary about the lessons that Robert S. McNamara, the former United States defense secretary, learned during Vietnam, was also a source of inspiration.

One or two dissenters from the security establishment can be dismissed as having gone soft or having an ax to grind, Mr. Moreh said, but not all six former chiefs of the Shin Bet since 1980. They talk with a mix of pride and shame about brutal interrogations and deadly operations, with one referring to a particular assassination as “very clean and elegant.” They are not your typical peaceniks.
“They know better than anybody else,” Mr. Moreh said of his subjects. “They have been there, they have done the work.” He added, “Any Israeli who is not corrupted ideologically, who when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t say the mirror is crooked, will have to listen eventually to what they are saying.”
What are they saying? “In the war against terror forget about morality.” That’s Avraham Shalom, who resigned in disgrace in 1986 after ordering the killing of two Palestinians who had hijacked a bus. “You can’t make peace using military means,” says Avi Dichter, who ran the agency from 2000 to 2005 and is now home front minister.
Mr. Ayalon: “You ask yourself less and less where to stop.”
Mr. Shalom again: “There was no strategy, just tactics.”
Yaakov Peri, who was elected to Parliament last week as a member of the new centrist There Is a Future party: “When you leave the Shin Bet, you become a bit of a leftist.”

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