Netanyahu Must Watch The Gatekeepers, if Only to Save His Own Legacy

The Prime Minister's Office has said that Israel's leader has not seen the Oscar-nominated documentary, nor does he plan to. This is a shame, not just for Israel, but also for Netanyahu's own legacy.

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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in an unenviable position. His next tenure is bound to be much more difficult than the one ending now, in which he could balance his various coalition partners against each other to do what he does best: stalling, evading and avoiding big decisions. Now he is faced with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which stands in a formidable bargaining position and is intransigent on a number of its demands.

He now has another headache as well: Dror Moreh, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Gatekeepers," which has already won the National Society of Film Critic’s award for best nonfiction film, and seems to be a very strong contender for the Academy Award statuette on February 24. , which I discussed a few weeks ago, is generating enormous interest, and major U.S. media including CNN are interviewing him constantly.

. "By not criticizing it [Israel’s policy], by accepting everything Israel does politically, and especially toward the conflict, they [U.S. Jews] are damaging their own goal to protect the state of Israel as a safe haven for them," Moreh told the Huffington Post. He also raises a very sore point for Netanyahu: He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Netanyahu participated in rallies in which Rabin was portrayed as a Nazi collaborator, and in the film he shows clips to support this. By not protesting these characterizations, Moreh says, he shares responsibility for the creation of an atmosphere that ultimately led to Rabin’s assassination.

to inquiries has so far been that Netanyahu has not seen "The Gatekeepers,” and that he doesn’t intend to do so. If this indeed true, it is a great pity indeed – and not because of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. Nobody will take Netanyahu to task for his role in the incitement against Rabin now. He will be Israel’s next prime minister. As for his role in the events of 1995, it is a matter he may or may not deal with in private and that historians will address in the future.

Netanyahu’s not watching "The Gatekeepers" is a tragic mistake for a different reason. As opposed to those who think that Netanyahu is nothing but a skilled, opportunist tactician, I have argued for years that, in addition to being enamored with power, he has a deeply entrenched Manichean worldview that he inherited from his father. He genuinely believes that it is his responsibility to save the Jewish people from another holocaust, and that the key to this is preventing Iran from going nuclear.

In this respect, he has been in a head-on clash with Israel’s security establishment. One by one, the men who have actually been responsible for Israel’s day-to-day security over the years have come out and turned against him. The opening salvo was fired by Meir Dagan, who served as head of the Mossad under three prime ministers including Ariel Sharon; Yuval Diskin joined him once he left the Shin Bet, and we now know that former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi fiercely opposed Netanyahu’s views on Iran.

"The Gatekeepers" now challenges Netanyahu’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict as well. Once again, he’s not dealing with the bleeding heart liberals, those whom the Israeli right wing and the American Jewish establishment like to write off as self-hating Jews and lovers of Palestinians. No, here he is facing six former chiefs of the Shin Bet, one of whom, Yaakov Peri, is No. 5 on the Yesh Atid list, and bound to play an important role in Netanyahu’s next government.

They can certainly not be accused of being soft on security. Between them they have been responsible for the deaths of countless Palestinians who were seen as security threats to Israel, including Yahya Ayyash and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

It would be utterly obscene to claim that they don’t understand Israel’s security needs as well as Netanyahu does. Each of these men spent more than three decades serving the IDF, the Shin Bet or both, in the most senior positions. They have been as privy to the most sensitive intelligence as Netanyahu, and their hands-on security experience, individually and collectively, far surpasses that of Netanyahu.

And here they are, unified in the same message: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is a catastrophe for Israel in all respects. It's not only that the occupation fails to serve Israel's vision as a safe haven for the Jewish people. It's that it actually harms that vision. If Netanyahu indeed doesn’t want to see "The Gatekeepers," then he is unwilling to seriously engage with views that differ from his. It means that he doesn't want to be confused with facts because he has made up his mind.

This would be very unfortunate indeed, particularly for a man like Netanyahu, who prides himself on seeing the big picture.

Netanyahu might want to learn from the mistakes of his idol Winston Churchill, on whom he likes to model himself. These mistakes shows how wrongheaded you can be if you just decide that you’ve made up your mind, no matter what.

Churchill was opposed to the decolonization of India, and to this day his attempts to ridicule Gandhi as “a Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a Fakir ... striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-Regal Palace” don’t stand up well to historical judgment. Netanyahu always takes Churchill as the man who saw Hitler clearly when Chamberlain didn't. He conveniently forgets, however, that Churchill initially had a rather positive take on Hitler, and as , was willing to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt until 1937.

Churchill was by no means among the first to see the monstrous horror Hitler presented, even though, once he realized it, he was utterly uncompromising. In other words: At his best, Churchill learned from experience and was willing to change his mind on crucial matters.

Netanyahu should know that great leaders are not just people of principle with a clear worldview. They are also willing to learn and to adapt to historical circumstance. Charles de Gaulle withdrew from Algeria not because he had believed so for decades, but because toward the end of the 1950s he came to understand that the colonial age had come to an end. Another one of Netanyahu’s role models, Menachem Begin, was by no means in favor of returning the Sinai to begin with. But he changed his mind and relinquished every inch of Sinai to Egypt when he understood that he had a historic opportunity to make peace with the largest Arab country.

I am by no means implying that Israel can or must rush into euphoria, that our situation in the Middle East is cozy and that there are not facing clear and present dangers. Nor am I disregarding the internal complexity of Palestinian society and politics. But Netanyahu must truly look at the big picture, realize the opportunity created by the Arab League Peace Initiative, and understand that stalling is not a strategy. If he doesn't, he will be remembered by history not as a great leader but as man who never learned anything from experience past his early 30s, when he originally formulated his worldview.

The Israeli film 'The Gatekeepers.'Credit: Toldot Yisrael
Dror Moreh, director of 'The Gatekeepers.'Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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