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Israel’s Oscar bid discomforts Netanyahu government

Published: Updated:

An Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary has brought little joy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the focus of the film’s criticism of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians.

Featuring searingly confessional interviews with six former chiefs of the shadowy security service Shin Bet, “The Gatekeepers” portrays the 46-year-old West Bank occupation and Jewish ultra-nationalism as threats to Israel’s survival.

Its run for Sunday’s Academy Awards comes at an awkward time for the conservative Netanyahu. He narrowly won an election last month that favored centrist rivals who, echoing world powers, demand he revive long-stalled Palestinian statehood talks.

Usually quick to congratulate Israelis who succeed abroad, Netanyahu has kept mum on “The Gatekeepers,” which an aide said he had not seen. Reaction from other officials has been frosty.

Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Shin Bet veterans’ interviews, in which they discuss episodes such as the agency-ordered killing of two captured Gazan bus hijackers and a plot by Jewish extremists to blow up a major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem, had been edited “to serve the Palestinian narrative.”

“What was presented there was presented in a really one-sided manner, and therefore the film is slanted,” Yaalon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and a former military chief, told Israel’s Army Radio.

Asked about the film during last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the lone centrist in Netanyahu’s outgoing coalition, offered tepid praise for its “testament to the fact that in Israel you can talk more freely, perhaps, than in any other place.”

While mostly well-received by Israeli audiences and film critics, “The Gatekeepers” broke little new ground politically. Four of the ex-Shin Bet chiefs had jointly aired similar public criticism against former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003.

Interest has been piqued by the film’s slick archive footage and digital re-enactments, its international accolades and the fact its interviewees span current ideological divides.

One of them, Avi Dichter, is Israel’s civil defense minister and a member of Likud and Netanyahu’s inner security Cabinet. Another, Yaakov Peri, is a lawmaker in Yesh Atid, the centrist party that was runner-up to Likud in the Jan. 22 ballot.

“When you leave [Shin Bet],” Peri says in the film, “you become a bit of a leftist.”

A third interviewee, Ami Ayalon, who once ran for the leadership of the center-left Labor party, tells director Dror Moreh that Israelis suffer a strategic shortsightedness that could imperil their survival as a democracy.

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

Moreh told Reuters this month that U.S. President Barack Obama should intervene in the conflict in his second term, comparing Palestinians and Israelis to kindergarten children.

“They need a grown-up to tell them, ‘Enough! Israel, Palestine, this is what you need to do, do it.’”