Analysis

Netanyahu's Targeting of Israel's Police Chief Means Criminal Probes Are Heating Up

Netanyahu has been careful to choose gatekeepers who would treat him with endless understanding, and his wrath will be directed at those who dare to display signs of independence

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich shaking hands with Netanyahu, December 3, 2015.
Haim Zach, GOP

It was clear to Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich that he and the officers investigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would become the next targets in Netanyahu’s blitz against those he sees as responsible for making progress in the criminal probes, Alsheich said in a private conversation about a month ago.

At the time, Alsheich was hearing that Netanyahu’s associates were referring to him using variations of the Hebrew term for “traitor." It is not clear exactly what treacherous act Netanyahu’s people attributed to Alsheich. Did they expect he would dampen the investigators' spirits? That he would prevent them from looking into billionaire Arnon Milchan over suspicions that he bribed Netanyahu? That Alsheich would stop Michael Ganor and Ari Harow from signing agreements to turn state’s evidence? That he would brief journalists that “there was nothing and there would be nothing” in the criminal cases involving Netanyahu?

If these were the expectations, they turned out to be wrong. Since being reelected to his second term in 2009, Netanyahu has been careful to choose gatekeepers he identified as those who would treat him with extreme caution and endless understanding on a rainy day. Former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and State Comptroller Joseph Shapira were both selected in this way. The two drew out the so-called "Bibi Tours" investigation, which looked into the legality of arrangements for the Netanyahus' travel expenses in the early 2000s, until its stinger was removed and it became a moldy historical remnant. But despite the joint demonstration of consideration, both Weinstein and Shapira later became personae non grata in the Prime Minister’s Office.

This happened to Weinstein only a few weeks before the end of his term, when, after much hesitation and delays, he decided to give the national fraud squad the green light to investigate the prime minister's wife Sara Netanyahu in the "residences" affair, which alleged that couple charged the public for their private expenses. The rift with Shapira, who until then had been gracious and generous to Netanyahu, came on the eve of the last Knesset election in 2015. Shapira decided at the time to postpone the release of a damaging report pointing out wasteful spending at the Prime Minister’s Residence and the Netanyahus' private home in Caesarea until after the election.

But Shapira’s decision leaked out to the press, causing him to reverse course and release the report. This move led to harsh calls from Netanyahu and later to a sharp cooling between the two. Since Netanyahu humiliated him, Shapira has shown an independent spirit toward Netanyahu, which culminated in the recent report on the problematic relationship between Netanyahu, telecom giant Bezeq's owner Shaul Elovitch and the director general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber.

When the marionettes decided to start moving on their own, their operator lost control. Now Alsheich’s turn has come. He was slated to be the next head of the Shin Bet security service, but since the criminal cases against Netanyahu came to light, he hasn't interfered with their progress. He met with the investigative team a number of times, read the key figures' testimony, gave his support to the investigation by signing the state’s witness agreement with Harow and claimed that it led to the accumulation of adequate criminal evidence against Netanyahu in at least one of the cases. All of this was apparently anathema to Netanyahu, who always takes great care to have his finger on the pulse of the gatekeepers.

As the weeks pass and the police’s recommendations to indict Netanyahu draw nearer in two cases, it is reasonable to assume that the violent attacks on Alsheich and his investigators will escalate – whether personally by Netanyahu or through his followers, Likud lawmakers David Bitan and David Amsalem.

If Netanyahu smells an indictment against him is coming together, the next targets will be the prosecutors, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the justices of the Supreme Court. Mendelblit has not yet earned his own direct attack from Netanyahu, but people who are in the know about the relationship between the two say major rifts appeared from the moment Mendelblit decided to stop the hesitant and toothless examination against Netanyahu and announced the opening of a full criminal investigation.

The relationship further deteriorated when Mendelblit decided to file an indictment against Sara Netanyahu. Despite the fact that the protestors who demonstrate weekly outside of Mendelblit's house – as well as some in the police and State Prosecutor’s Office – believe that the attorney general has been chilly toward the investigation, in Netanyahu’s eyes the fact that he even allowed it to commence borders on treason. Netanyahu responded with rage when Mendelblit informed him in December that he decided to label him a suspect.

Netanyahu and Mendelblit meet once a week for a private work meeting, usually devoted to legal matters, and the investigations are the elephant in the room. It will be interesting to see whether these meetings continue and what the atmosphere will be if Netanyahu takes off his gloves and attacks Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. According to legal sources, Nitzan recently presented a more hardline approach concerning the criminal evidence being gathered against Netanyahu in the so-called “Case 1000,” in which the prime minister is suspected of accepting bribes from wealthy backers.

Since his reelection in 2009, Netanyahu has avoided any direct confrontation with the justices of the Supreme Court. This trend has been reversed in recent months and it seems to hint at things to come. In internal meetings, the prime minister has expressed his support for some of the initiatives by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to trim the Supreme Court's power, including ending the seniority system for appointing the Court president.

With rather surprising timing, Netanyahu set out on a well-publicized campaign against the Supreme Court’s ruling that African migrants who entered the country illegally and are not officially recognized as asylum-seekers cannot be jailed for more than 60 days.

Netanyahu knows that if he is indicted, there is a reasonable possibility that the Supreme Court justices will find themselves facing a petition demanding that they order him to resign. It seems that he is interested in weakening and intimidating the Supreme Court before this dramatic decision is laid before them.

Netanyahu began his well-planned blitz last November. The first targets chosen were journalists and the media at large, which he had tried to tame and suppress through his dark dealings with publishers and billionaires. Now it's the turn of the gatekeepers, those who dared to display signs of independence and rebel against the task he proscribed for them: To preserve his rule.