Winning Battles, Losing the War

Every time pessimism regarding Israel overcomes me and I think that its society and government are irreversibly drifting to the right, and that the country is heading for a catastrophe that will raze the Middle East — perhaps even the whole world — to the ground, something rekindles my hope. This time it was, first, a speech by David Grossman that took place at the Hay Festival in Cartagena and, second, the premiere screening here in New York at the cinema in Lincoln Plaza — located in a basement that, owing to its program, its audience and even its smell, reminded me of those dear Parisian art-house cinemas on Rue Champollion — of the documentary “The Gatekeepers” by Dror Moreh. Both testimonies demonstrate that there is still a degree of lucidity and sense present among the Israeli public that has not been swept aside by the extremist tide led by the settlers, the religious parties and Benjamin Netanyahu.

David Grossman is not only an excellent novelist and essayist, he is also a public figure who advocates for negotiation between Israel and Palestine —which he believes is still possible — and is convinced that, in the future, both states will not only coexist but will collaborate in pursuit of progress and peace in the Middle East. He speaks slowly, in a mild manner, and his arguments are rigorous, sustained as they are by profoundly democratic convictions. He was one of the most active followers of the movement “Peace Now” and not even the recent tragedy his family suffered — the loss of a solider son on the frontline of the last war in Lebanon — has altered his pacifist stance. His first books included many interviews and accounts from his conversations with Palestinians which, for me, served as a compass for understanding the tensions, in all their complexity, that have been inherent in Israeli society since the birth of the country. Grossman’s moving contribution at the Hay Festival in Cartagena was heard with religious dedication by the hundreds of people who packed into the theatre.

Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh’s documentary is fascinating and it is not surprising that it has been selected as a candidate for an Oscar in its genre. The film consists of interviews with six former directors of Shin Bet — Israel’s intelligence service and the guardians of internal and external security — who, since the foundation of the country in 1948, have combated terrorism both inside and outside of Israeli territory, taken down various enemy conspiracies, eliminated a good number of them in dramatic assassinations and submitted the Arab population in the occupied territories to systematic, sometimes ruthless, scrutiny. It seems inconceivable that these six people, so intimately connected to the most sensitive military secrets of the state of Israel, could speak as frankly and irreverently as they do before Dror Moreh’s cameras. This is proof, if it were needed, that freedom of expression and opinion do exist in Israel. (The film’s director has explained that, when being checked for state security —since the film alludes to military issues — he received only two minor suggestions, to which he agreed).

Shin Bet has been very effective in terms of impeding attempts on Israeli leaders’ lives, carried out by Islamic terrorists, but it could not prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the creator of the Oslo Accords, by an Israeli fanatic. On the other hand, the organization did succeed in preventing a terrorist ploy by an ultra-religious Jewish terrorist group whose intent was to blow up the Temple Mount, which undoubtedly would have provoked a reaction of incalculable consequences from Muslims the world over.

“To combat terror it is necessary to forget about morals,” says Avraham Shalom, who had to leave Shin Bet in 1986 after having ordered the assassination of two Palestinians who had hijacked a bus. Now elderly and infirm, Shalom takes the coldest, harshest line of the six interviewees, when it comes to describing Israel today. “We have become cruel,” he affirms. Furthermore, the idealism and optimism that characterized the former generation of Zionists have been lost. Governments nowadays, he says, avoid making long-term decisions. “There are no longer strategies, only tactics.”

For his part, Ami Ayalon, director of Shin Bet between 1996 and 2000, laments that his fellow countrymen neither want to see nor hear what is happening around them. “When things get ugly, the easiest thing to do is to cover one’s eyes and ears.” The sentence in the documentary that impacted me the most came from him: “We win all the battles, but lose the war.” I believe that there is no better description of the future of Israel if its successive governments do not reform the policies of intransigence and force that they have employed since the failure of the negotiations with Palestinians at Camp David and Taba.

Contrary to what might be expected from these hardened men, both of whom have made difficult — sometimes bloody and violent — decisions in defense of their country, not one of them defends the fanatic and sectarian stance taken by the movement of the settlers, determined to recreate the Israel of the Bible or the party of Netanyahu’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman. Although the details of their views differ, all six men explicitly consider the occupation of Palestine territory, the policy of extending settlements and the use of pure military force to have failed and believe that they will portend, in the short- or long-term, disaster for Israel. For this reason, the country needs a government that demonstrates genuine leadership, one that is capable of withdrawing from occupied territories, as Ariel Sharon did with the settlements on the Gaza Strip in 2005. All six men advocate reopening negotiations with the Palestinians. Avraham Shalom, when asked by Dror Moreh if the dialogue should include Hamas, responded: “Them as well.” Without irony, he added: “Working for Shin Bet has made us become more left-wing, as you can see.”

I listened to the director of “The Gatekeepers” the night that it premiered in New York, and the sensible and brave things that he said rang bells after what I had heard a few days previously in Cartagena, when listening to David Grossman. One spectator asked: “What can be done so that the public opinion that does not want to see or hear what goes on is forced to do so?” Dror Moreh’s response was: “President Obama must act.”

His reasoning is simple and precise. The U.S. is the only country that still maintains influence over Israel. This influence not only comes in the form of important economic and military aid that the U.S. provides, it can also be seen when the U.S. continues to support Israel in international organizations, often in the face of near global opposition — vetoing all the Security Council resolutions that affect Israel — and when U.S. society powerfully supports the most extreme policies of the Israeli government. Conscious of the international disrepute that its government has gained, and of the frequent reprimands and general condemnation it receives from the U.N. and various human rights organizations, owing to its expansion of settlements and its reluctance to open serious negotiations with the Palestinian government, Israel has increasingly isolated itself from the international community, enclosing itself in a dangerous paranoia: “The world hates us, anti-Semitism triumphs everywhere.” Only the U.S. can convince Netanyahu to reopen negotiations and accelerate the creation of a Palestinian constitution and agreements that guarantee the security and future of Israel. David Grossman and Dror Moreh believe this and, in their respective fields, work with constancy and bravery toward this being a reality.

It can only be hoped that they, and those Israelis who think like them, bring to fruition their plans for dialogue and peace. I have certain doubts, because there are so many people in the U.S. who, on the subject of Israel, prefer to cover their eyes and ears rather than face reality.

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