Israel's Gatekeepers

In 1980, about the time a number of West Bank mayors were bombed by members of a secretive and fanatical Jewish religious group, Avraham Achituv, then the leader of the Shin Bet, tendered his resignation to Menachem Begin, who was the Israeli prime minister of that era. A number of events precipitated his decision to step down. Bassam Shakaa, mayor of Nablus, had lost both his legs from an explosion in his car, and Karim Khalaf of Ramallah had lost a foot. Achituv, so it was said, blamed Begin for some of those attacks.

Word was the Israeli intelligence chief was outraged by Begin’s refusal to allow his teams to infiltrate and tap the phones of the fanatics—although there were others who simply believed Achituv, whose pilot son had just died in a crash, was deeply depressed by that death and also weary of his demanding job. I was sent by my newspaper to Jerusalem to figure out what was what.

“Israel?” said my father when I mentioned my travel plans. “Why are you going?’

When I told him, he turned pale. “I believe Achituv is your cousin,” my father told me. Then he pursed his lips, realizing he’d already said far too much. I had never heard of this cousin, I have to add, but then my father was—usually—good at keeping secrets, and I’m pretty sure the only reason he mentioned this relationship was because he didn’t want me to go to Israel at all, neither to interview an injured Arab mayor nor, for that matter, my cousin.

On arrival in Jerusalem, armed—no thanks to my father—with the Shin Bet phone number, I learned pitifully little about Achituv’s motives in resigning—although I did glean a lot about the murderous fanatics. For the rest of my stay, Achituv remained about as elusive as Mideast peace (although one year later, the former Shin Bet chief did tell a mutual friend on his way to the US, “Tell my cousin, I send her my best”). In retrospect, however, I know exactly why he resigned, thanks to that same intermediary. After the bombings of the Arab mayors, a disgusted Achituv had been prevented by his own government from investigating. Some were eventually apprehended and imprisoned nonetheless. But by 1989, the bombers’ jail sentence was reduced, and they were freed from prison after a mere six years.

Now, a remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary called The Gatekeepers has just been released. There are quite a number of things one can say about this documentary, which features, astonishingly, six former Shin Bet chiefs who open up to the viewer with extraordinary, almost brutal candor. One thing you can say straight off: in no Arab country would an intelligence chief (much less six of them…) be permitted such license, and in no Arab country would a documentary-maker be accorded the ability to interview any of them, no matter how bland their pronouncements.

But the documentary interviews are anything but bland. In the film, Carmi Gillon, one of the Israeli ex-intelligence leaders, talks about how he resigned right after a right-wing maniac murdered Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo peace accords. Still another major moment: when former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter declares, “You can’t make peace using military means.” In a Huffington Post interview, the film’s Israeli director, Dror Moreh, clearly sums up the motivation of these men in coming forward: “Enough. Enough of the occupation. And not because they are bleeding-heart leftists, [but] because they are worried about the state of Israel … They are pragmatists.”

And Moreh also says, with considerable justification, “I must say that I think that this film is one of the best pro-Israeli films.” And he adds: “I think that America is dealing with the same obstacles that Israel has dealt [with] for decades.”

In other words, these days I am proud, very proud, of all my cousins.

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