Last updated: May 6, 2014

Mr Netanyahu, have you seen this film?

Banner Icon If a film can have the power to change the minds of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, it's this one.

"A state ruling over a hostile population of 1 million foreigners will necessarily become a Shin Bet state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy. The corruption found in every colonial regime will affix itself to the State of Israel. The administration will have to suppress an Arab uprising on the one hand, and acquire Quislings, or Arab traitors, on the other."

These prophetic words were written in 1968 by Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli intellectual and critic of the Occupation, after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

After hearing this quote, Yuval Diskin, former head of Shin Bet (2005 – 2011), Israel's internal intelligence service, is asked: "What do you think about this prediction, given where Israel is today?" "I agree with every word he wrote," says Diskin. "Every word he said is etched in stone."

He adds, "I wouldn't say it became a Shin Bet state, but no doubt, our current situation with the Palestinians ... created a reality that is very similar to what Leibowitz wrote." This comes from the man who is believed to have started and perfected the doctrine of targeted assassinations. Paradoxically, from 1993 to 1997, Diskin was deeply involved with setting up clandestine links with the leaders of the Palestinian security services, as well as with Jordanian and Egyptian intelligence.

"This comes from the man who is believed to have started the doctrine of targeted assassinations"

This is one of many extraordinary moments in the compelling Oscar nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers (2012) from filmmaker Dror Moreh, which looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of six former heads of Shin Bet. Moreh told The Economist, Leibowitz "was so extreme that Rabin (former Israeli Prime Minister) didn’t even want to shake his hand in the 1990s. So when the head of Shin Bet agrees with what Leibowitz wrote, it really is like an earthquake. Yuval raises his eyebrows in the interview because he can see the shock on my face!"

Interwoven with archive footage and re-constructions, the film contains intimate and honest conversations with the men who were at the centre of decision-making about Israel's security. They worked closely with Israeli Prime Ministers, and their insights had and still have, a deep impact on Israeli policy.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Moreh talks about how the film started. He had made a film about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon where he interviewed those close to him: "I tried to describe how this hawk, this father of settlement, became the destroyer of settlement with the Gaza Disengagement."

He reveals that, "One of (Sharon's) closest advisers, actually his chief of staff, 'Dubi' Weisglass, told me that before the announcement (made by Sharon in December 2003) ... to disengage from Gaza, there was an article in which four former heads of the Shin Bet said that if Sharon will continue on the same path that he is taking Israel, it will end in a catastrophe. Dubi told me that this had a profound impact on Sharon. It came from the people that he appreciated and that he knew personally. And I said, why shouldn’t I go and check if they are willing to do it for me?"

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The former heads of Shin Bet agreed to talk to Moreh. One of them, Ami Ayalon, had already persuaded Carmi Gilon, Yaakov Perry and Avraham Shalom, to speak in a 2003 interview in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest circulation daily newspaper, where they criticised Israel's tough military policies towards the Palestinians and said Israel needed to find a political solution to the Middle East conflict.

In the final chapter of the film, the six former heads of Shin Bet agree on the need for dialogue with the Palestinians to find a peaceful settlement. Carmi Gillon (1994 – 1996) says, "It's too much of a luxury not to speak with our enemies. As long as they decide not to speak to us, I have no choice, but when we decide not to speak, I think we're making a mistake."

He adds: "We are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering." Avraham Shalom (1980 – 1986) says: "The future is bleak," adding, "We've become... cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror."

At the end, Ami Ayalon (1996 – 2000), says: "The tragedy of Israel's public security debate is that we don't realise that we face a frustrating situation, in which we win every battle, but we lose the war." The film then cuts to black and the credits start rolling.

"The Economist notes that Netanyahu could 'do a Sharon'"

The Gatekeepers was released in 2012, a few months before Israelis went to the polls. Two weeks ahead of elections, Dror Moreh told The Times of Israel: "I saw from their (former heads of Shin Bet) eyes how our leaders really don’t want to solve this problem. They do not have the audacity, the temerity, the will, the courage that we need from a leader. Besides Rabin, I don’t feel that any leader really had it… I am not putting the blame only on the Israeli leaders. I think the Palestinian leaders suffer from the same horrible disease."

John Kerry's recent attempts to get Israel and the Palestinians to continue negotiations are faltering, and Netanyahu and Israel appear content with the status quo. Although it has been more than a decade since the outbreak of the violent second intifada, the cost of resurgent conflict is not a price worth paying. An International Crisis Group report has argued that there could be renewed violence.

The Economist notes that Netanyahu could "do a Sharon," that is "defy his own Likud party, forge a new outfit, reshape his coalition.” Sharon broke away from Likud in 2005, against Netanyahu's opposition, controversially deciding to evacuate troops and settlers from Gaza. The math shows that Netanyahu can form a new coalition seeking a two-state solution, if current partners pull out. Polls also suggest that a majority of Israelis accept the principle of the two-state solution.

Moreh says that after a screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival, three West Bank settlers approached him and said: "This is the first time we are going to go home and think properly about whether where we live is actually good for the state of Israel, as we have been taught, or bad." He adds, "Palestinians have also told me (they) were moved, which is incredible, because if you ask any Palestinian who they hate the most, they will usually say Shin Bet."

I telephoned Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, asking whether Mr Netanyahu had seen The Gatekeepers but he declined to comment. If others were persuaded by the film, maybe Netanyahu will be too. Does Mr Netanyahu have the courage to 'do a Sharon'? This is only part of a much larger puzzle, yet vital nonetheless: history tells us that the cost of inaction is more suffering on both sides.

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Stephen Clement
Stephen is a researcher currently writing for The Henry Mayhew Foundation.
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