Modern Zionists: gatekeepers of what?

A new Israeli documentary shows that Zionism has lost its nationalist vigor and now plays the victim card.

The Gatekeepers is a remarkable documentary that illustrates an important shift in Israeli attitudes over the past four decades. Unfortunately, most Western commentators only see in it a confirmation of their own prejudices.

Dror Moreh, the film’s director, provides a unique vantage point by interviewing six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. The organisation, roughly equivalent to Britain’s MI5, is mainly concerned with tackling security threats from the Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Its responsibilities also include preventing Jewish extremist terrorism in Israel and protecting senior politicians, embassies, airports and other Israeli facilities.

Gathering all six former directors together for interviews in the film was an impressive feat. Moreh first managed to persuade Ami Ayalon, the head of the Shin Bet from 1995 to 2000 and subsequently a Labour party politician, to participate. Ayalon, in turn, convinced the five others to take part. Yuval Diskin was the serving director of the organisation at the time of filming.

The sections of the film that have garnered most foreign interest deal with Israel’s brutal suppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Soon after capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, the security agency started creating a vast intelligence apparatus to curb any Palestinian militancy. Many Palestinians were arrested and forcefully interrogated in a systematic attempt to glean information about anti-Israeli activities. Some were pressed into becoming part of an extensive network of informants.

A related section of the film deals with Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders. Most famously, Yahya Ayyash, the chief bomb-maker of the Islamic Hamas organisation, was killed when Shin Bet detonated an explosive charge placed in his mobile phone.

All of this would seem to confirm Western allegations that Israel is waging a ruthless war against the Palestinians. It is certainly true that Israel systematically denies Palestinian democratic rights, but even here it is necessary to put such criticisms into their proper context.

It is all too often forgotten that Western countries have also used brutal tactics in military occupations. Afghanistan and Iraq are only the two most high-profile current examples of the massive use of force by Western armies in the Middle East. Western forces were not averse to assassinations, mass arrests, coercive interrogations and the recruitment of informant networks. Barack Obama’s policy of assassination by drone in Pakistan and Yemen also receives relatively little criticism in the West.

None of this justifies Israel’s repressive actions against the Palestinians, but it is naive and dishonest to present Israel as uniquely morally culpable. Yet it is common to find Western liberals slamming Israel’s tactics against the Palestinians while avidly supporting Western military interventions overseas. At least Israel can make some claim that it is facing an existential threat. Western liberal interventionists seem mainly preoccupied with making themselves feel that they are doing good. It is hard to imagine a more repugnant conceit.

In any case, the novel feature of The Gatekeepers is not what it says about the treatment of the Palestinians, but what it reveals about the mindset of the Israeli elite. It is striking that none of the Shin Bet leaders interviewed present a positive vision of what they are fighting for. In that sense, they can be described as post-Zionist. Maintaining the security of the state just seems to have become an end in itself.

The Shin Bet leaders’ main concern about the occupation is not the suppression of the Palestinians in itself but that it has corrupted Israeli society. From their perspective, Israel is the victim of the occupation. In particular, they point to the emergence of nationalist Jewish settlers in the occupied territories and their extremist fringe in the Jewish underground. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, in 1995 by a Jewish militant is only the most high-profile manifestation of this trend. Among other activities was a plot, mercifully unsuccessful, to blow up the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, widely regarded as the third holiest site in Islam. (A fictionalised version of such an attempted attack, thwarted by the Shin Bet, was the subject of Hahesder, an Israeli film released in 2002.)

This ambivalence about the occupation helps explain why the Shin Bet chiefs often come across as conflicted liberals to Western ears. On the one hand, they take palpable satisfaction in the efficiency of their military operations against Palestinian targets. On the other, they sound like peaceniks with their support for Palestinian autonomy or even a two-state solution.

In practice, this means letting moderate Palestinian leaders, who long ago gave up any claims to self-determination, take over day-to-day control of the occupied territories. If this leads to more efficient suppression of the bulk of the Palestinian population, then, from a Shin Bet view, so much the better. It would be naive to expect Shin Bet leaders to uphold genuine Palestinian freedom.

From the Shin Bet leaders’ perspective, the central obstacle to containing the Palestinians is posed by nationalist Israeli politicians. The compromised Palestinian leadership is eager to go along with a division between the two sets of territories. In contrast, many Israeli leaders, particularly those associated with the right, are reluctant to accept such a division.

Anyone with knowledge of Israeli history should see the irony in this discussion. Until the watershed year of 1977, when the right won its first election, the left dominated Israeli politics. It was under leftist leadership that Israel was founded in 1948 and the West Bank and Gaza were captured in 1967. It was also under a leftist government that the settlement programme got underway.

In the early decades of the state, the Israeli left had a clear vision of what it stood for. It had a pioneering zeal for the creation and establishment of a Jewish state. It also generally favoured Israeli control over the occupied territories, despite the large Palestinian populations.

Since then, the Israeli elite - particularly its leftist component - has become increasingly jaded. It no longer has the spirit for Jewish settlement it once had. It has also found that in many respects, Israel’s problems seem similar to those in other nations, including crime, corruption, poverty and inequality. On top of this, there are deep divisions between different segments of Israeli society (satirised in the Sticker Song). In addition, the elite finds its vision of a Jewish state undermined by the presence of many non-Jews, including numerous Eritreans, Filipinos, Russians and Sudanese, as well as the Palestinians. Contemporary Israel is a long way from the Jewish nirvana the elite once envisaged.

The Shin Bet chiefs interviewed in The Gatekeepers can all be seen as part of the faded remnants of this leftist tradition. Even the youngest, Yuval Diskin, would have spent his formative years in an Israel with a strong sense of identity. Indeed, the film’s director, Dror Moreh, clearly comes from this strand in Israeli society, too.

In contrast, the rightist minority that still retains a degree of Zionist zeal tends to be associated with the settler movement and religious Jews. The latter would generally be referred to as modern orthodox in America or Britain, but in Israel they are called national religious. These are not the ultra-orthodox haredim, where the men wear long black frock coats, but Jews who try to marry religious belief with modern life.

In contemporary Israeli politics, it is Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home party), who most clearly personifies this trend. He is economy minister in the current government, a settler leader and former software entrepreneur. Bennett also always wears the kippa sruga, the knitted skullcap that is the marker for religious male settlers. His outlook does not rest on traditional leftist beliefs, but on a fusion of national religious convictions and support for Jewish settlement in the territories.

So contemporary Israeli politics is beset by an awkward paradox. The descendents of the old left, who established the state in the first place, still hold positions of power but are unsure what they believe. At best they can point to Israel’s achievements in high technology, but this is hardly sufficient basis for a coherent national identity. In contrast, the right still upholds some notion of Zionism, but one based much more on religious conviction than was the case in the past.

The remnants of the old left try to resolve this paradox by inviting more Western, particularly American, intervention. In their view, only the US can put pressure on the Israeli right to make the necessary accommodation with the moderate Palestinian leadership. This goal is stated explicitly by Shin Bet leaders in the film and is Moreh’s view, too. Indeed, it is in this context that the film’s director has stated that his dream ‘is to go to the White House and show the film to Obama’.

This, then, is the proper context in which The Gatekeepers should be put. It is an attempt by the post-Zionist Israeli left, bereft of energy or ideas, to persuade America to intervene against the Israeli right. In that sense, it can be seen as a cry of despair.

This outlook also explains why the film has received such a warm reception among pro-intervention Western liberals. For example, Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian, argued in the run-up to Obama’s recent visit to the Middle East that the president should echo the message of The Gatekeepers. ‘These are not men to hold hands and sing Kumbaya’, he said approvingly.

As long as this support for Western intervention holds sway, no one in the region will be in a position to determine their own future. Palestinian freedom, in the proper sense of the term, is not on the agenda. All that is really being offered is for a narrow Palestinian clique, who renounced liberation long ago, to be the public face of the occupation. Meanwhile, even Israel, for all its talk of independence, will also find its future increasingly determined in Western capitals.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. An expanded version of latest book, Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress, is published by Policy Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

See the trailer for The Gatekeepers here:

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