Few films have ever pulled back the curtain on intelligence work like “The Gatekeepers,” based around interviews with six former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. The Shin Bet portfolio includes internal security, counterterrorism, protecting Israel’s political leaders and, critically for the purposes of this film, collecting intelligence on threats in the West Bank and Gaza. The recollections of its leaders provide an extraordinary perspective on Israel’s post-1967 history.
“The Gatekeepers” offers a broad overview of the Israeli security crisis from the vantage of these men, and dives into a few specific episodes, including the notorious hijacking of Bus 300, the uncovering of the plot to bomb the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the security crisis that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords, and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. No single episode is investigated in enough depth to offer a settled history, but director Dror Moreh does an excellent job illustrating the challenges facing the heads of Shin Bet, and their successes and failures.
The film intersperses the interviews with archival footage, and with material staged for the film, including eerie scenes of the aerial targeting of a terrorist vehicle. This not only alleviates the tedium of the talking heads, but ratchets up the tension by illustrating the dilemma of an Israeli security chief. The primary duty is to prevent attacks on Israeli targets, but they also profess an interest in avoiding killing non-combatants. But even a “clean” or “precise” operation has repercussions, according to Yuval Diskin, who led Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011, a leading architect of the “targeted assassination” tactic used against terrorist leaders.
Americans might find this sort ethical handwringing odd coming from a top security leader, but for Israelis the soldier in existential crisis is an archetype. They even have a name for it – “shooting and crying.” It’s tempting to suggest that the narrative that emerges from “The Gatekeepers” is one of hard men rethinking hard positions in the idyll of retirement. At one point, Yaakov Peri, who led Shin Bet from 1988 to 1995, sums up the frustrations of the job saying, “When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.” This might make for a compelling sound bite, but it distorts one of the most fascinating elements of the film – how bureaucratic institutions interact with political leaders.
All but one of the six “Gatekeepers” are career intelligence operatives. (Ami Ayalon, who led Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, was head of Israel’s navy when he was tapped to revitalize the spy agency after the assassination of Mr. Rabin.) As professional spies, and as men who climbed the bureaucratic ladder to high ministerial office, they take a natural pride in their work developing sources and methods, and have an institutional distrust of the political leaders who were the ultimate customers of the intelligence they provided.
The hardest of these hard men is Avraham Shalom, who headed the agency from 1980 to 1986. He left the agency under a cloud for his role in ordering the summary execution of two terrorists who were captured after hijacking a bus. He is the most vehement in his mistrust of politicians. Mr. Shalom describes himself as a very early proponent of a two-state solution, and was frustrated in his efforts to sound out Palestinian leaders on the idea by the lack of direction from his bosses in the Israeli cabinet. Today, he advocates talking to any enemy of Israel who will engage, under nearly any circumstances. “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone,” he says.
While “The Gatekeepers,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, is bound to take some heat for the way its subjects criticize Israeli leaders going back to Golda Meir, it’s worth noting that the Shin Bet leaders have axes to grind with politicians of the left and the right. What’s truly compelling about “The Gatekeepers,” is the rare opportunity to hear people at the top of the spy game talk about the challenges and limits of intelligence work in a dangerous part of the world.
TITLE: “The Gatekeepers” (in Hebrew with English subtitles)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Dror Moreh
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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