Imagine six former directors of the CIA talking with a distinguished filmmaker and confessing to the murder of two terrorism suspects, ordering the assassination of others, alleging a lack of real leadership by the president and stating to the camera and the entire world that the war in Afghanistan is an unconscionable botch -- a bloody, daily slog without end or justification. This, of course, could never happen in the United States. It did, though, in Israel.
The filmmaker is Dror Moreh and what he did, simply and astoundingly, is sit down, camera rolling, with six former heads of Israeli's security agency, the Shin Bet, and let them spill their guts. The result is the documentary "The Gatekeepers," which is up for an Academy Award and which, it seems safe to say, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu would like to see lose. That it was partially made with government funding is, truly, an example of insult added to injury.
The six men span the years 1980 to 2011. They served under eight different prime ministers and through a succession of uprisings by Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, a turn-your-face-away series of terrorist attacks against civilian targets -- the bombing of city buses, etc. -- after which certain niceties of law were not followed. After a 1984 bus bombing, two captured terrorists were almost beaten to death by the army -- and the job was finished on the orders of the Shin Bet's Avraham Shalom:
"So I said, 'Hit them again and finish it.'"
The order was followed.
"I think he took a rock and smashed their heads in."
Some of the other Shin Bet chiefs recount James Bond-type exploits -- an exploding cellphone, for instance -- and rough interrogations that may or may not amount to torture. It's not clear. But what is clear is that some of these former spy chiefs view right-wing Jewish militancy as more perilous to Israel than the restive and seething Palestinians on the West Bank. It was a Jew, after all, who killed the revered Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 because that prime minister was determined to make peace. This was, they all concede, an event that changed history.
The film is a tough indictment of Israeli policy, particularly the continued occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of Jewish settlements there. All of the former officials are traditional Israeli secularists and they show a commendable loathing for the religious militants that Israeli governments continuously pandered to. Above all, though, they are critical of government after government that lacks a strategy to somehow withdraw from the West Bank and instead relies on oppression. "You can't make peace using military means," says Ami Ayalon, head of the Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000 and a former navy commando.
Ayalon is the cliched Israeli. He is the product of the kibbutz movement, a rock-hard physical specimen with more derring-do under his belt than an entire SEAL team. He had a belief, a secular one, and it was in the wisdom and courage of Israel's leaders. As he talks, the camera pans a wall of the prime minister's outer office where the requisite photos of them all hang. Ayalon recounts what he found when he finally had the stature to get to see that office ... nothing.
"I was on the second floor, and found no door at the end of the corridor, and behind the missing door, no one was thinking for me. You see that void that ... lack of initiative, that willingness to let things take their course."
This has the aspect of a dream sequence. But the lack of initiative, the refusal to recognize that time ticks for the Palestinians, not the Israelis, that the world watches with growing irritation (and, for sure, anti-Semitism) are all too real. The weight of history, of fearsome geopolitical truths (so many Arabs, so few Jews, so much fear, so little hope) is crushing Israeli initiative. For those of us who love and admire Israel, "The Gatekeepers" is a squirmy 97 minutes.
And yet is there another country where the former security chiefs would say such things? Is there another country where the tough guys cite philosophers, confess their anguish, admit to the inadvertent killing of noncombatants -- look the camera in its cold, unblinking eye and express second thoughts about what they did and accuse their bosses of being weak, unimaginative leaders? Having not seen the competition, I can't say if "The Gatekeepers" deserves an Oscar. But I can say Israelis do for having made it.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group