JERUSALEM – They have assassinated Palestinians, incarcerated thousands of others, and disrupted the lives of thousands more—but they have also become the most persuasive advocates in Israel for peaceful relations with an independent Palestinian state.
One of 15 films to make the 2013 Academy Awards’ best documentary shortlist is Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, which features interviews with six former heads of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, responsible for fighting terror over most of the past 30 years.
They are unapologetic for the harsh measures their job called for in suppressing the Palestinian uprisings and suicide and bus bombings. But they are all angry with politicians for failing to take advantage of the periods of relative tranquility, like the current one, to pursue political accommodation with the Palestinians. Their ire appeared to be directed particularly at current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We win every battle but we’re losing the war," said Ami Ayalon, 67, a highly decorated war hero who headed the Shin Bet from 1995 to 2000. As a child, his parents told him that in Jerusalem there was a building with a long corridor on the second floor, which led to a door behind which sat a wise man thinking about what the people need.
"When I grew up I reached that corridor [leading to the Cabinet room in the government center] but there was no door and no wise man," he said in the film.
The most veteran of the Shin Bet leaders, Avraham Shalom, 85, said that immediately after the Six Day War he and others favored the creation of a Palestinian state.
"But then the terror started and we were so busy fighting it we forgot about the Palestinian state," he said.
It was incumbent on Israel, he said, to try to talk to all its enemies, even Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"And if they answer rudely to try again," Shalom said. "It’s too great a luxury not to speak to our enemies."
Intelligence officers by their nature are inclined to get to know the worst of their enemies, he said, "to see that they don’t eat glass and show them we don’t drink oil."
Avi Dichter, who headed the Shin Bet between 2000 and 2005 during the Second Palestinian Intifada, said that peace is not built by military means but through relations of trust.
"As someone who knows the Palestinians well, I say there doesn’t have to be a problem creating genuine relations of trust with them," he said.
Yaakov Peri, head of the service from 1988 to 1994 sounded a similar tone while speaking of nighttime raids on the homes of frightened families to arrest suspected terrorists.
"Those memories make you a bit of a leftist," he said.
The film, which has just begun to be shown in Israel, is expected to elicit strong reaction from both the right and the left.