As He Readies for Dual Ambassadorship in U.S., Gilad Erdan Looks to Day After Netanyahu

The public security minister has had some wins, some major losses, a strained relationship with the police chief and a lose-lose position in Netanyahu's three criminal cases

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Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Arab town of Deir al-Asad during the coronavirus pandemic, April 19, 2020.
Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Arab town of Deir al-Asad during the coronavirus pandemic, April 19, 2020.Credit: Rami Shilush

Wherever he would encounter fellow Likud party members and activists, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan knew that he had to brace himself for a grilling. Likud central committee members asked him at a 2018 parlor meeting in Rehovot how he could permit the police to conduct a criminal investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the height of the probe that ultimately led to the premier's indictment. And why doesn’t he fire the police commissioner? 

Whether he was attending a conference, a wedding or a circumcision ceremony, Erdan would be pummelled with demands and questions about why he wasn’t halting the investigation. He had to do something, they insisted.

Erdan would repeatedly try to explain that, although he oversaw the Israel Police, he had no authority to intervene in police investigations, but that didn’t help. His party colleagues would attack him, claiming that the police were persecuting the prime minister. 

The police, on the other hand, expected the minister to give them his backing. Erdan was in an impossible position, which got even worse when he was summoned as a prosecution witness in one of the three cases against Netanyahu – involving the prime minister’s alleged interference in the content on the Walla news website owned by the Bezeq telecommunications firm – purportedly in exchange for government regulatory concessions given to Bezeq.

After five years at the Public Security Ministry, Erdan is leaving – bruised but still on his feet, and en route to a prestigious double ambassadorship, as Israeli ambassador in both Washington and the United Nations. The appointment also provides Netanyahu with benefits twice over: Freeing up one of the greatly limited spots around the cabinet table for other Likud politicians in the new coalition government, and sidelining Erdan – a potential political rival of the prime minister’s – to an overseas posting.

Erdan’s decision to leave political life in Israel and accept a job that he had previously turned down indicates that he believes Netanyahu isn’t leaving politics any time soon. Now Erdan plans to return a few years down the road to run for the leadership of the party, after gaining diplomatic experience and with photo ops at the White House under his belt. 

Vexed police appointments

But on the way to his new diplomatic career in the United States, Erdan’s record is marred by his ongoing failure to appoint a police commissioner to replace Roni Alsheich, against the backdrop of the three criminal cases against Netanyahu. The current acting police commissioner, Moti Cohen, has already been on the job for a year and a half.

When Erdan took the job as public security minister back in 2015, a large number of top police officers were under investigation by the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit. In a bid to bring in someone from the outside as commissioner who could restore order, Erdan nominated reserve army Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch in August 2015. The decision, which enraged the police establishment and raised eyebrows in the prosecutor’s office, prompted a look into Hirsch’s past, followed by a formal criminal investigation of Hirsch on suspicions of bribery, tax offenses and money laundering.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan before their meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018.Credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy

Erdan was forced to withdraw the nomination of Hirsch, who is still awaiting a decision on a possible indictment on tax violations. Lacking other options, and with Netanyahu’s assistance, Erdan approached Alsheich, who was the deputy head of the Shin Bet security service at the time, and begged him to take the top job at the Israel Police. Alsheich was ultimately persuaded.

Early on during their time working together, Erdan and Alsheich had to deal with a wave of terrorist attacks that put the police – and particularly the Border Police in Jerusalem – on the front lines in the fight. Erdan and the police managed to tamp down the wave of terrorism, until it died out the following year, 2016. During that period, Erdan’s relationship with Alsheich was civilised.

The first crack in their relationship appeared to surface at the time of the evacuation of the unrecognized Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran in January 2017. In the course of that operation, a village resident, Yakub Abu al-Kayan, was shot to death in an incident in which al-Kayan ran over and killed a policeman, Erez Levy.

Alsheich was quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, and based on Alsheich’s remarks, Erdan followed suit, but later the Shin Bet found that Al-Kayan had not deliberately run Levy over – that he had been shot due to an operational error by security forces and then ran over Levy. To this day, Alsheich insists that Al-Kayan carried out a deliberate terrorist attack, but about a month after the incident, Erdan qualified his stance somewhat and referred to it as a “regrettable incident.” While he never publicly retracted his stance that it had been a terrorist attack, associates of Erdan acknowledge that he had been dragged too soon into adopting Elsheich’s characterization of the incident.

Gilad Erdan with then Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich on January 16, 2018.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Enjoying the spotlight

In fact, Alsheich and Erdan never really got along well. Alsheich emerged as a very dominant figure who, despite his years at the Shin Bet, turned out to enjoy the spotlight. He faced Erdan, a dominant public security minister who was very involved in the work of the police and who wanted to express his views publicly, in part on Twitter, of which is he is a fan.

Another incident that troubled the relationship between the two involved suspicions of sexual misconduct against Roni Ritman, who headed the Lahav 433 police anti-corruption unit. Elsheich gave Ritman his full backing while Erdan refused to consider Ritman’s transfer to any other senior police position. 

In December 2015, the attorney general at the time, Yehuda Weinstein, decided to close the case against Ritman, but the High Court of Justice ordered Alsheich to take disciplinary action against him. Alsheich did not wish to do so and sufficed with a reprimand. 
That case is an example of wider differences of opinion between Erdan and Alsheich on the issue of police discipline. Erdan had expected Alsheich to take a tough stance against police misconduct, but his police chief opted instead, even publicly, to give police suspected of misconduct his backing, preferring the “educational route,” as he put it.

The friction between the two intensified, particularly as the investigations against the prime minister progressed. Erdan, who was top-ranked in the 2015 Likud primary, began to be viewed in the party as a representative of the police. For his part, Alsheich backed his investigators in the face of attacks on their handling of the Netanyahu investigations. Things came to a head when the police commissioner claimed that powerful forces had collected information on the investigators in the cases, a statement that infuriated Erdan.

Several law enforcement sources told Haaretz in the past that another point of friction between the two involved Alsheich’s attempts to influence senior appointments at the Public Security Ministry. Erdan opposed Alsheich’s effort to get a candidate of his choosing appointed as head the witness protection authority and decided instead to nominate retired Brig. Gen. Avi Neuman, who ultimately got the job. Another dispute between the two was prompted by Alsheich’s decision to appoint communications consultant Lior Horev as an adviser. In the end, Erdan decided not to extend Alsheich’s term for a fourth year.

It could have been worse

The end of Alsheikh’s term led to another failure on Erdan’s part regarding the appointment of a police commissioner. This time he wanted to appoint retired police Maj. Gen. Moshe Edri, who was then the director general of the Public Security Ministry, but the committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg that vets senior civil service appointments rejected Edri’s candidacy. 

Gilad Erdan with Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 30, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

It was at that point that Erdan appointed Moti Cohen as acting police commissioner. For the past year and a half, the police have been left without a permanent commissioner, because of Erdan’s decision in principle to leave the decision to his successor.

Erdan was a very hands-on minister and was involved in the internal operations and appointments at the Israel Police. He still thinks it would have been better if he had received broader authority over the work and policies of the police. 

His main initiative, an office to protecting children from internet-based harm – which is better known by its 105 hotline phone number – is considered significant as the problem of online violence has grown. Erdan, who at one point chaired the Al-Sam drug abuse organization and had been a fierce critic of the use of soft drugs – can also take credit for the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use.

He is also proud of his involvement in what is known on the right as “strengthening Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount.” With Erdan’s help, the number of Jewish visitors to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount doubled in four years. Today, about 30,000 Jews visit the Temple Mount every year, Public Security Ministry officials said. Erdan also acted to outlaw a number of Islamic movements whose activities related to the Temple Mount, which is also holy to Muslims.

A police failure in the Arab community

The most notable failure of the police during Erdan’s tenure has involved the Arab community. Despite enormous financial investments throughout his term, including the opening of eight police stations in Arab towns, crime rates in the Arab community have remained very high and are regarded as the greatest problem for the police.

Two police campaigns to collect weapons in the Arab community are evidence of the sad situation. Only dozens of guns were turned in as a result of the campaigns – while it is estimated that there are more than 100,000 illegal weapons in Arab towns. 

Erdan remarked that “Arab society is very, very and another thousand times, very violent. These are cultural codes.” That drew harsh criticism from the Arab community and later the public security minister said his comments were taken out of context.

As minister, Erdan was responsible for two other major government agencies – the Israel Prison Service and the Fire and Rescue Services. He had some relative successes with the Prison Service, from his standpoint, such as the handling of hunger strikes by Arab security prisoners and harsher conditions imposed upon them. But the prison service remained the neglected child of the law enforcement and security establishment, as is illustrated by the remaining squat toilets in a few prisons. As for the fire and rescue service,  Erdan was unable to resolve the ongoing battles between the union and the national fire service commission, which have caused serious harm as to how it has been functioning.

Unlike his predecessors at the Public Security Ministry, who have almost completely disappeared from public view, Erdan will continue to be a dominant figure in Likud and has now snagged the most prestigious appointment in the foreign service. The fact that he came in third in the most recent Likud primary – despite the investigations of Netanyahu and a number of his other party colleagues during his tenure – is evidence of his success in retaining his standing with the party.

Soon Witness 151, as he is known in the case of the State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu, will be on his way to the United States. He too knows that his situation could have been much worse.

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