The documentary, and the debates in Israel, Palestine and America, show the need to think strategically.
“Argo” won Best Picture. “Zero Dark Thirty” best illustrated just how controversial post-9 / 11 policies remain. But 2012’s most important movie about the Mideast was the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers,” a searing indictment of Israel’s policies on Palestine.
Consider the source, some may say, referring to Hollywood’s politics. But that’s what’s most notable about “The Gatekeepers” — the indictment is internal, from those who know best: Six former directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service.
Revealing methods they used (sometimes lethal), and how counterproductive those tactics now seem, the former security chiefs bluntly criticize governments led by each of Israel’s leading parties — centrist Kadima, liberal Labor and conservative Likud. Interspersed in the interviews are archival images and re-creations. But “The Gatekeepers,” which opened on Friday, is as much about the future as the past. And the future “is very dark,” said Avraham Shalom, director of Shin Bet from 1980-1986. Of the past he says: “There was no strategy, just tactics.”
Those tactics are now roundly criticized by those who executed them. “You can’t make peace using military means,” says Avi Dichter, director from 2000-2005. Some, including Yaakov Peri, who led from 1988-1994, lament missed opportunities. “There were plenty of instances since 1967, when, in my opinion, and I thought it then, too, we should have reached an agreement and got out.”
The film’s impact in Israel is uncertain. “It seems like this movie is hitting a chord about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I’m really happy with that,” Director Dror Moreh told the Star Tribune’s Colin Covert. Whether that chord is hit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains to be seen, however: He recently said he has no intention of watching the film.
“I think it’s a compliment to the way Israel is willing to check itself, to criticize itself, and check if what we did was the right thing to do,” said Roey Gilad, Israel’s consul general to the Midwest, in an interview. “I understand, without watching the film, that some of the people were quite critical. But that’s fine with us. We are even willing to finance such a film, because we believe that the only way you can do better is to look at what was done in the past, and ask, ‘How could I have done it better?’ ”
Indeed, Israel’s internal debate is robust compared to the ones in Palestine and even the United States, according to Daniel C. Kurtzer, ambassador to Egypt during the Clinton administration and to Israel during the George W. Bush administration. Kurtzer, a Princeton professor and editor of “Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” was in Minneapolis this week in a visit coordinated by J-Street, a self-described “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby. In an interview after his presentation at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Kurtzer said that “it’s much more open in Israel. You can make arguments about the peace process, and you can criticize settlements, and you can criticize and criticize and you’re within the mainstream of Israeli politics.”
As for Palestine? “It’s almost apples and oranges. You make the argument about Israeli society that it should be a greater debate because you know it’s a vibrant society that debates everything. Palestinian society doesn’t debate much at all. It contributes mightily to keeping them from the table.” (Calls to Palestinian representatives at the United Nations were not returned.)
The negotiating table is likely to seat Americans, too. But we may be having a more conformist conversation than the one in Israel.
“Here there are self-inhibitors, where people feel that they can’t do all the criticism that’s necessary because they’ll be perceived as being outside the consensus,” Kurtzer said.
Just ask Chuck Hagel. Or listen to the senators who did, pointedly, at his contentious confirmation hearings. Hagel got outside the U.S. consensus, but his comments pale compared to what is said in “The Gatekeepers.” Had Hagel been as blunt as the former directors of Shin Bet, he wouldn’t have been nominated, let alone confirmed, as defense secretary.
Yet the recent rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of the tight ties between Israel and the United States. And that may be hurting the very ally we’re trying to help.
“We’re not using the right language, and it’s retarding the peace process,” said Kurtzer. “Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter. When you look at the record of successive administrations, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has always grown deeper and stronger. Always.”
Gilad agrees: “I am sure that the special relationship between Israel and America, which reached a peak under President Obama and [former Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta, is going to stay on this peak, and maybe even reach a new peak under Secretary Hagel.”
The impact of our internal debates matter internationally. And not just regarding the peace process: They can obscure objectives elsewhere. Citing U.S. commanders, Kurtzer said, “When we are not working on the Middle East peace process, our ability to do things with Arab countries suffers dramatically.” We’ll need those Arab countries as we draw down in Afghanistan, edge into Syria, isolate Iran and push for the peace process.
This doesn’t mean that Congress shouldn’t reflect its role — in fact, its responsibility — to ask tough questions, especially on defense issues. But the Beltway needs to move beyond partisan paralysis and think and act more strategically.
As Obama prepares for his first trip to Israel, how can Washington best advance U.S. interests?
“To the president: Develop a serious and sustainable approach. To the Congress: Give him space and time to operate,” Kurtzer concluded.