Spy masters open up in Oscar-nominated ‘Gatekeepers’

Dror Moreh is director of “The Gatekeepers,” a look at the former heads of Israel’s domestic security agency.
Nir Elias/Reuters
Dror Moreh is director of “The Gatekeepers,” a look at the former heads of Israel’s domestic security agency.

NEW YORK — As “The Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh is fond of saying, the power of his Oscar-nominated documentary derives not only from what the subjects of the film have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but from who is delivering those words.

Moreh’s film, which opens in the Boston area on Friday and is vying for best documentary feature at Sunday’s Academy Awards, centers on the six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency (also known as Shabak), which handles intelligence gathering and counterterrorism operations. Observations like “You can’t make peace through military means” or “We win every battle but we lose the war” don’t seem particularly jaw-dropping at first blush. But your ears perk up when these candid insights and moral qualms are uttered by six steely spy masters who toiled for an agency known for its secretive and ruthless ways.

Having never spoken about the conflict on camera before, the former Shin Bet chiefs illuminate the long-term strategic and moral price that’s been paid by Israel for its decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories. Frank yet guarded, defiant yet regretful, compassionate yet cruel, they offer fascinating analysis and surprising, even disturbing revelations from their tenures. We also see the toll that the job took on their psyches.


But what’s most jarring is that the film’s central message — that the prolonged Palestinian occupation is both ineffective and unjust — emanates from what Moreh calls “the center of the defense establishment.”

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“When you think about the CIA directors, the heads of Shin Bet, the head of Mossad — you think immediately of right-wing, pro-war kind of guys,” says Moreh. “So when these six men come and speak so candidly and openly, sharing their mistakes and their faults and their wrongdoings and their moral debates with themselves, it’s a narrative that you almost never hear.”

“These are The Guys. I cannot say it more eloquently. Nobody in the Israeli arena understands the conflict better than them. No one,” Moreh continues. “They have sacrificed almost everything to maintain the security of Israel. This is what they did every day. This was their raison d’être. And they have nothing to gain from participating in this movie.”

At times, the Shin Bet leaders sound less like spooks defending their brutal tactics in the face of threats to Israel’s existence and more like pragmatic peace-seekers advocating diplomacy and even conciliation based on a two-state solution. Says Yaakov Peri, who served as the head of the agency from 1988 to 1994, “When you retire from this job, you become a bit of a leftist.”

The former Shin Bet leaders acknowledge mistakes, but they also justify their actions, triangulate about decisions, and air grievances. “In the war on terror, forget about morality,” says the oldest gatekeeper, Avraham Shalom, who headed the Shin Bet from 1980 to ’86. Yet later in the film, he suggests that Israel is endangering its future by refusing to fully engage in the peace process and that its actions have become cruel: “It’s a brutal occupation force, similar but not identical to the Germans in World War II.”


The idea for the film was sparked as Moreh was making his 2008 documentary about former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Talking with Sharon’s innermost circle of advisers, he learned from chief of staff Dov Weisglass how a 2003 article in a major Israeli newspaper deeply altered Sharon’s thinking about the conflict. In the article, four of the former Shin Bet directors warned that Israel was “in grave danger” and headed down a path to ruin if the hawkish Sharon continued with his aggressive military policies, permitted the continued construction of new settlements, and refused to restart diplomatic peace negotiations until all Palestinian violence ceased. Weisglass told Moreh that their words unsettled Sharon and influenced his decision to remove all settlements from Gaza in 2005.

“[Sharon] was considered the father of Israeli settlements, a man who was seen as a bully and considered extreme right wing by people all around the world,” said Moreh. “But all of a sudden, he uprooted 21 settlements in Gaza and four in Samaria [in the northern West Bank]. And those four in Samaria indicated that he was willing to go further, to go beyond Gaza. The article had a huge impact on Sharon because it came from the center of the defense establishment in Israel.”

Moreh, 51, was also inspired by Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War,” a searing portrait of former US defense secretary Robert S. McNamara as he unapologetically reflects on the lessons he learned from the Vietnam War, whose military escalation he spearheaded.

“It gave you an insight into those rooms where those military and political decision-makers were sitting, what moved through their heads in making certain decisions and in the rationale for waging war,” Moreh says. “So I thought that if I could bring together all the former heads of Shin Bet to speak on camera and to show the development of the occupation in the West Bank from their point of view — how it’s adversely affected Israel and how we should proceed — it would probably create a huge storm.”

“The Gatekeepers,” which already captured year-end laurels from several critics groups, isn’t a static talking-heads film. Moreh, who worked as a cinematographer for many years before directing his own work, wanted the film to be visually rich. Computer-generated imagery was used extensively — for instance, to create banks of monitors showing aerial views of drones tracking suspected terrorist targets. “I wanted to put the viewer in the seat of the gatekeeper, in the seats of those decision-makers,” he says. “So you will see that wall of monitors and how it really looks in those war rooms of the Shin Bet.”


In another sequence, they digitally invented three-dimensional images of the Bus 300 hostage crisis from 1984 using only a few photographs of captured terrorists that were famously published on the cover of an Israeli newspaper. (The two captured perpetrators had been executed by the Shin Bet, a public outcry ensued, and Shalom was forced to resign.) “It allowed me to bring into life, to animate, those frozen still photos and to create the feeling of the photographer or the journalist who was there,” he says.

‘Nobody in the Israeli arena understands the conflict better than them.’

Ensconced inside a conference room at Sony Pictures Classics, shiny gold Oscar statuettes and other prizes displayed in the glass cases behind him, Moreh admits that he’s looking forward to the Oscars ceremony. “It’s a dream of every filmmaker in the world to reach that arena,” he says. In the documentary feature race, “The Gatekeepers” is up against four worthy nominees, including another film that examines the Israeli occupation — “5 Broken Cameras,” a personal account of weekly protests against a settlement barrier that destroyed olive groves and split off a village of Palestinians from their farmland.

As for Moreh’s own outlook on a possible resolution to the conflict, he admits that he holds no illusions about the obstacles and wonders if some wounds are beyond healing. A majority of Israelis still support the creation of a separate Palestinian state. But in national elections held in January, questions about the peace process took a backseat to social and economic issues, including unemployment and mounting debt concerns.

“I am much more bleak in my point of view and more realistic about what can be achieved and what cannot be achieved,” Moreh says, adding that there’s a lack of strong political leadership right now.

“You need two great leaders on both sides at the same time,” he says, who would be able to shoulder the considerable burdens of striking a peace deal that will require major sacrifices. “There are so many issues that could get in the way to prevent a deal, only someone coming from outside the conflict can cut through all of that. Really, the only guy who can do that sits in the White House.”

Moreh hopes that President Obama will reengage with the stalled peace process in his second term. But before coming to the table, he advises, Obama should consider what the Shin Bet commanders have said in his film.

“Everybody knows how the conflict should end — the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans, the international community,” he says. “So Obama should come with a paper that says, ‘This is the deal. Take it or leave it. You cannot negotiate. You can express your concerns and I will take them into consideration. But we decide the final details at the end.’ He has to do this with a big iron fist on one hand and a big carrot in the other. Otherwise nothing will be solved, and it’s a wound that will continue to [plague] the whole world for a long time to come.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@