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Mira Sucharov


by Mira Sucharov, May 27, 2013

While much of the media buzzed a few months ago around The Gatekeepers, one of two Israeli documentary films to make it to the Oscars, the film is now making its rounds across North America and I recently saw it at the Bytowne Cinema. Its lessons were evident the next morning when I found myself bellowing, “What’s the strategy?” at my kids as they fumbled to roll out the door appropriately garbed for the final snowy day of spring.

It was an amusing parenting takeaway at the time, but the intended lessons of the film are much more jarring and wide-reaching. Watching The Gatekeepers, one quickly realizes how deeply the Israeli security culture is embedded in a reactive posture which underscores an apparent addiction to the status quo. As interviews with successive Shin Bet heads revealed various animal metaphors – cat and mouse, and dog and rabbit – the point about a lack of a long-term strategy was evident.

Israeli security services have become very good at targeted assassinations, while the foreign policy establishment has exhibited little appetite to consider the bigger picture.

“When one leaves the service, I suppose one becomes a bit of a leftist,” said Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet head from 1988 to 1994.

In October 1994, I had just moved to Israel to spend a year interning at the Knesset and working as a research assistant for some academics back in Canada when the first major suicide bombing was carried out in Tel Aviv, just blocks from my apartment. It was the deadliest terrorist attack to date in Israeli history and the first major attack in Tel Aviv. The Gatekeepers leaves nothing to the imagination about that devastating attack which killed 22. The film later details how the Shin Bet succeeded in eliminating its mastermind, a Hamas operative nicknamed “The Engineer,” who was killed three months later by an exploding cell phone.

Viewers of the film may be impressed by the Israeli security service’s attempt to exact revenge almost at will. Viewers will also likely have left the theatre wondering when and how the cycle of attack and counterattack will ever end.

The summer before last, I met with Peri, one of the Shin Bet heads featured in the film, at an Italian bistro in Ramat Gan. I had been interviewing Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar when Peri joined us. Eldar and Peri are old friends, having worked together on the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI). The IPI is a 2011 document signed by prominent Israelis, including security brass, and issued as a response to the Arab Peace Initiative several years earlier.

The IPI captures the broad peace process consensus: regional peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the 1967 lines with limited land swaps, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and refugee compensation with return to a Palestinian state only (with symbolic exceptions).

Peri may consider himself a bit of a leftist, but this year won a Knesset seat with Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by journalist Yair Lapid, the newly formed and pre-eminent centrist party in Israel.

Lapid’s platform was an amalgam of peace-oriented policies and those propping up the status quo. So far, focusing on challenging haredi education standards while remaining mum on the issue of settlement expansion, it’s far from clear how much Yesh Atid, as a member of the right-leaning government coalition, will push a meaningful peace process strategy.

Perhaps because of this uncertainty, Eldar, the journalist I interviewed, published an open letter to Peri several weeks ago. In his letter, Eldar implores Peri not to “abandon ‘our’ path, yours and mine both.” He explains, “Together we promoted regional peace guidelines to ensure the future of Israel as a democratic, Jewish, secure and thriving state.”

That day in the Ramat Gan café, we spoke about the ‘no partner’ thesis, the idea promoted by many on the right: namely that Israelis are willing to make peace, but there is no one on the other side to talk to.

About that assumption, Eldar said, “Let them say no,” adding, “I’m not sure we will be successful, but if not, we will be worse off. The danger of not doing anything is greater than the danger of trying.”

Peri’s remarks to me echoed that point.

“Israel’s passivity has brought the country to a position of global isolation. We are perceived as refuseniks,” Peri said.

He is unequivocal about the civic duty of Israelis to make peace.

“The job of every Israeli is to improve the political situation through agreements.”

For my part, I hope he has internalized this sense of duty while seated in the Knesset. Only time, and coalition wrangling, will tell.


This piece was first published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and is being reprinted with permission.


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