When we last caught up with filmmaker Dror Moreh, it was at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his documentary “The Gatekeepers” — featuring six former heads of the Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet — became one of the breakout hits of the 10-day program.
A lot had changed by the time Moreh visited Washington in January. In November, Hamas sent rockets to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, part of an outburst of violence that threatened to take hold in the heretofore peaceful West Bank. Ten days before Moreh’s visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a third term, albeit with a weakened hard-line parliamentary coalition. Just a few days earlier, President Obama was inaugurated for his second term.
Oh, and “The Gatekeepers” had been nominated for an Oscar.
Through it all, Moreh had been nurturing one dream. “You know what is my wish? To see the movie with President Obama,” said Moreh, 51. “I think it would show him a lot about the Middle East conflict. He can learn a lot about what needs to be done from [our] film.”
Indeed, “The Gatekeepers,” which opens here on Feb. 22, presents an invaluable primer on contemporary Israeli history, which Moreh presents through the eyes of seasoned Shin Bet leaders in unprecedented interviews, each relating firsthand experience with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight against terrorism, “enhanced” interrogations, targeted assassinations and the rise of extremist factions within Israel itself. Starting with the Six-Day War in 1967, “The Gatekeepers” weaves together talking-head interviews with surveillance footage, re-enactments and computer animation to create a riveting account of the agency’s successes, failures and scandals. To a man, the Shin Bet leaders decry a generation of political leaders who they say ignored their recommendations to keep the peace process alive, instead staying locked into a cycle of occupation, violence and reprisal that shows no signs of letting up.
Moreh was watching Errol Morris’s documentary “The Fog of War,” about Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, when he hit on the idea of coaxing similarly candidaccounts from Israel’s secret service leaders. “But I need[ed] all of them. Why? Because I [didn’t] want it to be challenged, for someone to say, ‘He’s a lefty, he’s a righty.’ It’s all of them.”
Starting with Ami Ayalon, who led the Shin Bet from 1996 until 2000, Moreh posed the same question to his subjects: “I wanted the experts on the Israel-Palestinian conflict . . . to explain why, after 45 years since the Six-Day War, Israel hasn’t found a solution to this problem.” The answer, although far from simple, almost always comes down to government forces that, when faced with a crisis, responded out of emotion or political expediency rather than rationality and compromise. “We wanted security and we got more terrorism,” Ayalon says of the period following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in 1995. “They wanted a state and they got more settlements.”
Although Ayalon and his colleagues present a remarkably united front in “The Gatekeepers” — all of them favor continued negotiations with the Palestinians, an end to the occupation of the West Bank and a settlement freeze — Moreh admits that the consensus is partly due to “the magic of editing.”
“Of course, there are differences in their way of thinking,” the filmmaker continues. “I’d say four are more left-wing and two are more center. But they all believe in a two-state solution, in the possibility of creating this agreement with the Palestinians. They all resonate that in different ways, but basically they all believe that’s the most important thing. When they see the conflict and they see the price that Israel has paid for that conflict, they are all worried.” (Says former Shin Bet director Yaakov Peri in the film, “When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”)
Moreh, who grew up in Jerusalem and lives in Tel Aviv, makes haste to emphasize that the Palestinians have their own part in the stalemate. “I’m not absolving the Palestinians,” he says. “It’s not that the Israelis have [made] all the mistakes themselves. But . . . if you are for a two-state solution as the prime minister, how can you build a coalition with Lieberman?”
Moreh is again referring to Netanyahu and his former deputy prime minister Avigdor Lieberman, a longtime skeptic of the peace process and a critic of plans to return to Israel’s 1967 borders. Calling Netanyahu “the worst enemy of Israel,” Moreh notes that, with the prime minister’s coalition weakened, he may now be forced to work with more centrist parties. “Hopefully within two years — and that’s what I suspect will be the length of this government — there will be another election. And then I hope there will be a very prominent candidate against him.”
If Netanyahu is Israel’s worst enemy, according to Moreh, Obama “is the best thing that’s happened to Israel in a long, long, long time.” Regarding the president’s comments last month that Israel doesn’t know what its best interests are, Moreh says, “He’s absolutely right. And this isn’t coming from Dror Moreh. I’m not that important. Six former leaders of the secret service are saying the same thing. Exactly the same words, almost word for word what Obama said.”
Still, even Moreh admits that the president will have to take a more activist role in the Arab-Israeli dispute during his second administration. “He doesn’t have a choice,” he says. “If things stay like it is now, or if nothing happens in Israel, there will be another eruption of violence soon. Whether he likes it or not, he will have to intervene. . . . I don’t see [that] the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves have the power, the energy or the kind of leadership they need in order to solve that problem. Unless there [is] huge pressure from the international community, nothing will change — on the contrary, it will only get worse and worse and worse.”
With the Oscars a week away, Moreh has turned his fantasies from the White House to the red carpet, which he’d like to walk (in a rented tux) with all six gatekeepers, dressed in sharp black suits and sunglasses, “walking in slow motion, like ‘Reservoir Dogs’!” he laughs. The point wouldn’t just be to look cool. “If these people come to tell you these things, you’d better listen,” says Moreh. “Because they know. They have no interest in saying those things whatsoever, aside from really caring for the state of Israel and for the people of Israel and their families.”
97 minutes, opening Feb. 22 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda, is rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violent content.