Reproduced below, after my personal comments, is a movie review by the much-admired critic A. O. Scott that appeared in the Sunday New York Times this past week. Featured in the write-up is a man whom I was once privileged to know and call a friend — Avraham (“Abe”) Shalom, a former head of Israel’s internal security agency known as the Shin Bet (or Beth), roughly equivalent to our FBI (as distinct from the better-known Mossad, which more closely resembles our CIA, or external intelligence service.)
Abe Shalom’s story is uniquely interesting, I believe, and so I thought I might share a few personal thoughts and observations about him with some of you who will then, I hope, decide to accept A.O. Scott’s recommendation and see the film when it comes to a theater near you.
I first met Abe in London in early 2004, several years after his resignation from the Shin Bet. Because of his notoriety and the long list of his enemies, he was living in the U.K. in exile, under an assumed name, and went nowhere without a three-man protection team of former British secret service agents. We met several times in London, always clandestinely and always arranged through a trusted third party. Through these long conversations I gained an insight into the extraordinary complexities and contradictions faced by citizens of Israel — related to me with utter frankness by a man whose life-long career as a policeman had exposed him to the good, the bad and the ugly side of life in that tormented society. Our last meeting was actually in Tel Aviv, some years after our London acquaintanceship. He had made a quick visit, under cover, to visit his wife, who was then living in a sanatorium in the Negev, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Abe has now returned to Israel on a permanent basis, and is no longer living incognito — a fact that I had not known until reading the NYT movie review yesterday. Time heals most wounds, thankfully. A mutual friend, the trusted intermediary who first introduced us many years ago (a lady), wrote to me yesterday, responding to my query prompted by this week’s movie review:
Dear Ray: I last saw Abe here in Israel in June (2012). Having suffered a minor stroke last year he has slowed down tremendously but is is still of sharp mind most of the time! His vision was affected by the stroke and he is unable to read any more, which frustrates him tremendously. He featured prominently in an exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the capture and return to Israel of Adolf Eichmann, and he cooperated with a documentary about that as well. Abe was as you know seconded to Mossad for that mission because he spoke German and Spanish! I got him on a good day. We had a wonderful lunch and stroll down the beach. It was a privilege to hear his views … He despairs for Israel. I will ring him first thing tomorrow to make sure he knows of the NYT movie review, and will pass on your compliments and good wishes.
As a further introduction, and as an explanation of why Abe was living so secretively in London when I knew him, I have resurrected from my files a short article from an Israeli newspaper of November 2003, which, as you will see, is an important intelligence report in itself:
JERUSALEM, Nov 14, 2003 (AFP) – Four former heads of the Israeli Shin Beth interior security services warned in interviews published Friday of the “disastrous” consequences of Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In the interviews with the top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot published Friday, the four men accused the successive Israeli governments of carrying a large part of the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock and called for dismantling Jewish settlements.
We are heading straight to disaster if we do not give up Greater Israel,” said Avraham Shalom in reference to the expansionist project of a far-right fringe in Israel who wants the Jewish state to stretch from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Shalom, who headed the Shin Beth between 1980 and 1986, also predicted imminent disaster if “we do not recognise once and for all that there is another people which is suffering and towards which we are behaving shamefully. ”
“We are humiliating the Palestinians and they cannot tolerate it, just like we could not tolerate it if we were in their position, while we are incapable of making the slightest move to change this situation,” Shalom added.
Three of his successors were also interviewed by Yediot: Yaacov Peri (1988-1995), Karmi Gilon (1995-1996) and Ami Ayalon (1996-2000).
“We are sinking deeper each day into a bloody quagmire and are paying an increasingly heavy economic and international price,” said Peri.
For his part, Gilon emphasised that the Israeli government will not be able to indefinitely put off a direct confrontation with hardline Jewish settlers living in the Palestinian territories.
The position of the four men is in stark contrast with the policy advocated by current Shin Beth chief Avi Dichter, who opposes easing the pressure on the Palestinian population.
Now, finally, here is the NYT movie review of this past Sunday, November 25th, 2012:
Six Israeli Spymasters on a Shadowy Past and a Dark Future
By A. O. Scott, November 25, 2012
“The Gatekeepers,” a new documentary by the Israeli director Dror Moreh, consists of interviews with six men, all of them retired, most of them bald, one of them a grandfatherly type, well into his 80s, in suspenders and a plaid shirt. They reminisce about past triumphs and frustrations, but Mr. Moreh’s amazing, upsetting film, which opens Monday for a weeklong awards-qualifying run in advance of a wider release next year, is the opposite of nostalgic. It is hard to imagine a movie about the Middle East that could be more timely, more painfully urgent, more challenging to conventional wisdom on all sides of the conflict.
The six men are all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency (also known as Shabak) whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets. Legally established in 1949 under the government of David Ben-Gurion, the organization initially focused on internal matters in a fledgling country beset by ideological divisions. Since the 1967 war, however, the biggest part of Shin Bet’s mandate has involved counterterrorism and intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza.
“The Gatekeepers” is in part a history of post-’67 Israel, in which familiar events are revisited from an unusual and fascinating perspective. The leaders of Shin Bet, who answer directly to the prime minister, are not part of the country’s military command structure. Nor, because of the clandestine nature of the agency, are they visibly part of the Israeli political establishment, though they sometimes function as public scapegoats when politicians make mistakes. What is most astonishing about the interviews Mr. Moreh has recorded is how candid and critical these six spymasters are, inflecting their stories with pointed, sometimes devastating assessments of the failings of successive governments.
“I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist,” says Yaakov Peri, who ran Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994, during the first Intifada and the negotiations that led to the Oslo peace accords. But while it is true that Mr. Peri and his colleagues generally favor the curtailment of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are hardly doves or bleeding hearts. And their shared professional ethos of ruthless, unsentimental pragmatism is precisely what gives such force to their worries about the current state of Israeli politics.
With neither undue pride nor excessive remorse, Mr. Moreh’s interlocutors talk about the “targeted assassination” of Hamas militants, about “moderate physical pressure” applied (sometimes fatally) to Palestinian prisoners and about the other tactics that are part of the arsenal of occupation. They also confront some significant lapses, including the killing of two suspects in a 1984 bus hijacking that led to the resignation of Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom and threatened to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Later Shin Bet failed to anticipate the outbreak of the first Intifada and was unable to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995.
Mr. Shalom, born in Vienna in 1928 and a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence, comes across as a wise and gentle old man, though he is recalled by others as a bully and monster. He is at once a steadfast defender of Shin Bet’s tactics and an eloquent critic of a political leadership, which was unable, as Labor and Likud traded power and the country lurched from crisis to crisis, to summon the strategic vision or the moral courage necessary to bring about a lasting solution to its problems. “The future is very dark,” he concludes, lamenting the cruelty and intransigence that he sees as the legacies of more than four decades of occupation.
He is not alone in his pessimism, which is perhaps the dominant mood of Mr. Moreh’s film. The director, somewhat in the manner of Errol Morris, is an unseen and mostly unheard inquisitor, occasionally shouting a question from outside the frame or prodding his subjects when they seem coy or confused, and allowing a series of vivid portraits to emerge. The audience is absorbing a collective history but also coming to know a collection of complicated, thoughtful human beings, who are willing to share not only their war stories, but also their doubts, qualms and conflicted emotions.
Mr. Moreh intercuts the interviews with archival footage of public events and evocative recreations of more shadowy doings. The resulting film is inevitably partial — it relies entirely on those six voices, without the usual documentary chorus of opposing views or disinterested experts — but also eminently, even thrillingly fair-minded. It is guaranteed to trouble any one, left, right, center or head in the sand, with confidence or certainly in his or her own opinions. If you need reassurance or grounds for optimism about the Middle East, you will not find it here. What you will find is rare, welcome and almost unbearable clarity.