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Israel could be on its way to resembling Sicily, retired judge Vardi Zeiler told Haaretz in an interview following Sunday's publication of a damning report on police and prosecution malfeasance by the inquiry committee he headed.

"Sicily is an entire region where there's this phenomenon of crime taking over government," he said. "You're asking me whether crime has penetrated the government in Israel? I don't know. But I do know that if the phenomenon I saw at this one narrow point has spread throughout the Israel Police - it's Sicily."

Referring to suspicions that a senior police officer, Yoram Levy, was effectively representing the interests of the Parinyan crime family within the police, he added: "If the suspicion is true and if this truth is to be found in wide swaths of the Israel Police, then it is an evil regime. A mafia-type regime ... [But] only if the suspicion is proved and only if it is discovered that the same thing is happening in 30 other places in the police force, could you speak of a mafia."

In the interview, Zeiler defended the planned appointment of Prisons Service Commissioner Yaakov Ganot as the new police commissioner. Referring to the problematic incidents in Ganot's past - disciplinary offenses to which he admitted and a criminal trial in which he was acquitted due to reasonable doubt - Zeiler commented: "If anyone wants to find a tallit [prayer shawl] that is entirely pure blue [i.e., one with a spotless record], he won't succeed." What is needed, he said, "is a person who is functionally suitable and worthy in normative terms ... I don't know anyone who's never done something wrong or something foolish or lied to his wife. That's life. Only God's angels don't do anything ... I've yet to see a leader who is without blemish."

Describing what he discovered as chair of the Zeiler Committee, he said: "Here there was pure filth." The worst, he said, was the "batteries affair," in which, following the theft of thousands of gas mask batteries from an Israel Defense Forces storeroom, two police officers, rather than investigating, served as mediators for a suspected crime kingpin who declared that he would return the batteries in exchange for appropriate ransom from the insurance company. One of the officers personally delivered the money - between NIS 250,000 and NIS 600,000, according to the different accounts - to the kingpin, Oded Parinyan.

"People are sitting in the police station and transferring money and stolen goods and deceiving the army and their own commander," Zeiler said. "This was very difficult to take. When the senior command is sitting just above and corruption taints the middle ranks, it's a catastrophe ... [This affair] concentrates within it all of the negative aspects: the absence of existing norms, the absence of institutional norms, the absence of scrutiny and supervision. People running totally wild. No sense of fear, no sense of authority. Total filth.

"In the course of my work, I learned something I didn't know: namely, that ... police officers manipulate police activity in order to be helpful to those with whom they wish to curry favor," he added.

If things had been handled differently, could lives have been saved?

"One thing is sure: If things were working properly, no one would have been killed after the murder of Buhbut," Zeiler said, referring to the incident that sparked his committee's probe - the 1999 murder of criminal Pinhas Buhbut by a uniformed policeman, allegedly on orders from the Parinyan brothers, while Buhbut was under police guard in the hospital. "And a second thing, if not for Ilana Dayan and her television program, this case wouldn't have been revived and no one would have known what happened. These are things that can be said with absolute certainty."

So what's really going on here, Judge Zeiler? Does a spirit of lawlessness prevail throughout the law enforcement systems?

"There is a spirit of lawlessness and of a nonfunctioning system. If there were discipline and oversight and a normative network - the whole thing would look different ... Foolishness and lack of understanding and corruption have given rise to an atmosphere here in which people feel they can do certain things. There was a sense that you could do these things because the net of norms would not catch you. Everyone knew there was no such net. And this is dangerous. It's like with a border. You don't know if the alarm at the fence is due to a terrorist or just a dog. And if you say, 'It's nothing, it's just a dog, we won't do anything about it,' your life is finished. You have no border. You have no net of protection."