Remember the commercial with the punch line, “When E.F Hutton talks, people listen?”

Israeli director Dror Moreh has assembled six former heads of Shin Bet – think combination CIA, Secret Service and Homeland Security – whose candid and previously unheard assessments about the occupation of Palestinian land and the effect it’s having on the soul of their nation should be required listening for everyone who cares about Israel’s future.

“Gatekeepers,” opening Friday, intersperses their thoughtful and sobering interviews with footage of Israel since the Six Day War in 1967 and re-created scenes to recall vexing security threats, ethical dilemmas and failures of political leadership.

Equally powerful is the personal toll that overseeing security in the occupied territories took on these hard-nosed men. In the opening scene, a vehicle is targeted by a “smart bomb” while former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin discusses how a known terrorist is inside who will at some point try to kill Israelis. At the same time, others could be inside of which nothing is known. Suddenly, the vehicle is incinerated inside a cloud of smoke.

“We all have our moments [of reflection],” Diskin says, whether it’s unexpectedly reliving life-and-death decisions without easy answers, whether shaving or on vacation.

Providing balance – and a reminder of the security concerns Israelis must contend with – are archival footage of horrific terrorist bus bombings.

These former security chiefs are left uncertain over Israel’s moral compass, whether it’s the unspoken but hinted at harsh detention methods that can force Palestinians to inform on friends and family, to the rise of a militant settlers movement that leads one of Israel’s own to assassinate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist,” says Yaakov Peri, who led the security agency from 1988 to 1994, during the first Intifida.

These are tough men, pragmatists who distrust political ideologues willing to use Shin Bet as a scapegoat when it serves their purpose. These men who led the security agency from 1980 to 2011 agree the status quo – including the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land – is untenable. The warning signs, they say, are all around.

“The future is very dark. We have become cruel to ourselves, but mainly to the occupation,” says Avraham Shalom, who in his wire-rim glasses and suspenders looks like someone’s folksy grandfather rather than a man feared in his day.

“We win every battle, but we lose the war,” says Ami Ayalon.

“You can’t make peace using military means,” concludes Avi Dichter.

Carmi Gillon chokes up, recalling how an anti-Arab Jew’s murder of Rabin in 1995 set back the cause of peace to the present day, and how afterward Jewish terrorists were protected by Israeli politicians.

“I suddenly saw a different Israel,” Gillon says.

One can only hope that hardliners in Israel and in this country – where Jews seldom discuss in public forums the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and right-wing lobbying groups hold inordinate sway over Congress – will consider the shared wisdom of these men and their view that negotiation and not war is the only path to peace.

Palestinians’ experiences with Shin Bet aren’t included in the film. But Diskin acknowledges the gray areas where some insist on only seeing black and white: “One man’s terrorist,” he concedes, “is another man’s freedom fighter.”


Three and a half stars

Starring: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Per, Avraham Shalomam

Director: Dror Moreh

Running time: 97 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images.

The Lowdown: Six former leaders of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, offer candid reflections on their work and the impact of the Palestinian conflict on their country. (In Hebrew with English subtitles.)