Very interesting article in today’s conservative British Daily Telegraph by David Blair, its Chief Foreign Correspondent about a new movie that has just opened of interviews with former heads of the Israeli security service Shit Bet. It suggested that in the long run security services are helpless without political solutions to the problems that cause the security issues. It also suggests that Israel is politically in a mess and powerless to move forward.
What can soldiers and spies actually achieve? The limits on what they can do – and their inability to bring genuine peace and security – is the unspoken theme of The Gatekeepers, a remarkable documentary based on interviews with six former directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli version of MI5. This film is showing in London now and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of the most sobering and powerful pieces of cinema I’ve seen.
A former head of Shin Bet is better qualified than just about anyone to offer genuine insight into the Middle East conflict, particularly if he’s prepared to speak frankly. And the interviewees in The Gatekeepers do not disappoint.
First of all, they are unsparingly self-critical about the consequences of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. One, Avraham Shalom, actually compares the conduct of Israel’s army to that of German forces during the Second World War (although he is at pains to stress that he’s not drawing any comparison with how the Jews were treated). Another, Carmi Gillon says: “We are making the lives of millions unbearable.”
All of them are keenly aware that occupation does more than embitter and humiliate the occupied people. It also corrupts and brutalises the occupying power itself.
And that leads to their second insight. They are grimly realistic about the limitations of their own profession. All that Shin Bet and other security forces can do is reduce risk. Spies and soldiers can prevent specific terrorist attacks and foil plots. In the process, they save lives and create the space for a society and an economy to function. But they cannot bring peace and security. Only a viable political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians could achieve that. And that is not a matter for the securocrats, but for the political leadership on both sides.
That is where the men from the Shin Bet say they have been let down. All of them are searingly critical of their political masters. With a few exceptions, they are portrayed as short-sighted and self-interested. The Gatekeepers shows the strength of the Right-wing backlash that Yitzhak Rabin faced after he shook hands with Yasser Arafat and signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993. Rabin was furiously denounced by the settler lobby and brutally caricatured as a Nazi by right-wing demonstrators. Then he was assassinated by a fellow Israeli in 1995.
Rabin’s fate shows the immense political risk – and indeed personal risk – that any Israeli leader would be taking if he reached a settlement with the Palestinians. The Gatekeepers is bleakly pessimistic, portraying Israeli politicians as either unable or unwilling to do what is needed for peace. Meanwhile, all the skill and daring of the country’s security forces can achieve nothing but reduce the risks. The securocrats acknowledge their own inability genuinely to protect the society they serve. Only courageous and enlightened political leadership can do that. And the film gives you the impression that the one man who could have achieved this, Rabin, is now dead and the moment when this would have been politically feasible could have died with him.
I’m not qualified to pronounce on whether that thesis is correct or not. But I offer one thought. The people who run the world’s best security and intelligence agencies have a very interesting cast of mind. They must be tough, ruthless and prepared to cause harm. Have no illusions about that. But they are also pragmatic, flexible and – above all – coldly realistic. Dogmatism and ideological certainty are alien to them. They live in the real world, the world of compromise and shades of grey. That makes these people worth listening to. And the men who used to run Shin Bet clearly believe that the only way to safeguard Israel is by following the old formula of land for peace.