Why Would a Man Set to Be the Next Shin Bet Chief Want to Join the Police?

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R., the deputy chief of the Shin Bet who has been nominated as Israel Police commissioner. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The planned nomination of the deputy head of the Shin Bet as Israel's next police commissioner should ostensibly avoid the obstacles that dogged and finally buried the nomination of his paratroop colleague Brig. Gen. (res) Gal Hirsch.

Like Hirsch, "R" – his name cannot be published by law, though it shouldn't take more than two minutes to find it on the Internet – has been parachuted in from the outside and has never worn the blue uniform. But, unlike Hirsch, he has accumulated a lot of experience in senior positions, has not aroused the hostility of bereaved parents and he has not earned a living as a security consultant, a field full of legal potholes.

No senior appointment in Israel can go smoothly, so we can expect a bit of controversy over his ideological background. But, whatever happens, there is a question in the background that has not yet been satisfactorily answered: What motivates a man like R, who is considered to be the leading candidate for the position of head of the Shin Bet, which becomes available in another eight months, to stick his healthy head into the sick bed of the police?

Now aged 52, R was drafted into the paratroops about a year before the First Lebanon War. He served as commander of the brigade engineering company during the days of the security zone in southern Lebanon and the start of the Second Intifada (a position in which he was replaced by Hirsch) as well as deputy head of brigade 50 in the battalion.

In 1988, he left the army for the Shin Bet, where he was trained as a field coordinator. He subsequent filled what is commonly called a full work card. He was head of the Shomron sub-sector (equivalent to brigadier-general in the army) towards the end of the Second Intifada, head of the Jerusalem and West Bank sectors immediately after, head of the southern sector, with responsibility for the Gaza Strip and head of operations. He was appointed deputy head of the service about a year ago.

In other words, he has held four posts that are equivalent to major-general rank in the army and police, though in a far smaller organization. The positions have included a diverse range of command and management responsibilities, some of which (investigations, legal aspects) are largely equivalent to the work of the police.

Throughout his career, he has been spoken of as an excellent professional, with extraordinary knowledge of the Palestinian sphere and dominant leadership skills. Those were accompanied by ambition. He was identified as a potential head of the service years ago and it appeared as if all his moves were calculated towards that goal.   

R is a Shin Bet man in the full meaning of the term. In the few working meetings he has held with journalists, it was easy to discern his power of analysis, clarity of understanding and width of perspective. At the same time, It was difficult to shrug off the impression that someone was manipulating you.

That is possibly the by-product of meeting a trained handler of agents. In contrast to Hirsch, whose flowery language and sentimentality might have cast a shadow over his relations with police personnel (an issue that was never put to the test due to the attorney general's delaying tactics in approving his nomination,) R is a sophisticated bureaucratic player. If any of the police generals intend giving him a hard time with the aim of getting rid of the next parachutist in line, they are likely to be disappointed.

Due to the fact that R never entered civilian life between the Shin Bet and the position offered him in the police, it is likely that the process of his appointment will be free of at least some of the complexities posed by Hirsch's business career. As far as is currently known, his name has also not been connected to exceptional incidents in the Shin Bet.

Nevertheless, his nomination is likely to raise questions from the left. Until about three years ago, R lived in a small settlement in the Ramallah area. (When he moved to Israel proper, there were those among his competitors who considered it a career move, designed to make him acceptable to the political center.)

Among his past commanders were those who raised doubts about his conduct if he were to have to deal with political criminality from elements on the far-right. To be fair, such doubts were also raised about the current Shin Bet head, Yoram Cohen, who has taken care to act disinterestedly and shown balance and moderation during periods of security tensions, such as last year's war in Gaza.

Ever since R's nomination was announced on Friday, one question has been raised repeatedly by those in the security establishment who know him: What the hell does he need it for?

According to the common wisdom, R is virtually a shoo-in for the post of the next Shin Bet head. There is wide agreement about his capabilities, his career in the Shin Bet has prepared him for the top job and Cohen apparently backs him as his successor.

It could also be that the kippa on his head could be considered an asset in the current political climate. Why, then, give up on the dream of his life?

According to law, Cohen will complete his five-year term in May 2016 (though the law allows for a one-year extension in special circumstances.) Ostensibly, then, all R had to do was avoid mistakes in the coming months and leverage the admiration in political circles that he has achieved in recent years until the position was offered to him.

The nomination as police commissioner removes him entirely from the current succession race in the Shin Bet and opens it up to other candidates. If R actually goes to the police, it is unlikely that there is any way back to the organization in which he flourished.

It could well be that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called on him to fulfill a national mission. The police force is in a state of collapse, following the involvement of senior officers in a series of sexual harassment and corruption cases, its functional failures in many areas and the turmoil it has gone through as a result of the abortive attempt to nominate Hirsch.

It is already clear that Erdan has totally lost faith in the possibility that an appointee from within the force will manage to rehabilitate the battered organization.

The Hirsch episode also worsened Erdan's relations with the three major-generals who had been mentioned as possible candidates for the top job. R was called to the flag and, as a team player, agreed to take on the mission. That is certainly the version that will be made public, when the fog surrounding his identity and picture dissipates.

But, because the process of senior appointments has become a mass brawl under Netanyahu, full of surprises, meddling and irrelevant interests, it's not impossible that here, too, there will be more to come.

It's possible that alongside the laudatory intention to contribute to the rehabilitation of an important state body, R knows more than we do about his prospects in the Shin Bet and came to the conclusion that it was better to join an important national mission now, than risk losing an appointment he want in less than a year.

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