Israel Police Officials Say Anti-corruption War Ended Out of Fear

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Police officers in Tel Aviv, in 2018.
Police officers in Tel Aviv, in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

For the first time since entering office, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev visited the headquarters of the police’s Lahav 433 national investigations unit in Lod Wednesday. He was accompanied by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz, who founded the unit.

The visit came two weeks after former Deputy Interior Minister and lawmaker Faina Kirshenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption offenses. Lawmaker David Bitan of Likud is scheduled to face trial soon on several corruption charges. Both cases are the result of hard work by Lahav 433 and state prosecutors.

“The investigations branch and Lahav 433 are the spearhead of the police in the battle against serious crime, organized crime and corruption,” Shabtai said at the end of the visit. These remarks are considered unusual for Shabtai.

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According to a number of law enforcement sources, this reflects Shabtai’s priorities: In the past few months, corruption has been far from the top priority of the police brass, they say.

“There are no investigations of this size today,” said a senior police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, about the Yisrael Beiteinu and Bitan cases. “Important corruption probes are sidelined, it doesn’t interest anyone.”

A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed these remarks. “A cold wind is blowing on large corruption investigations. People understand that it will shock the system and want to avoid it.” This spirit comes from the top, from Shabtai himself, said the sources. The message is that it’s best to avoid such investigations because they will only hurt the police force in the end.

Some sources said the same message is being sent by Maj. Gen. Yigal Ben Shalom, who was appointed head of the investigations branch last year.

One senior law enforcement official said the Justice Ministry – up to the level of the attorney general – also delays investigations. “The moment it begins to touch on senior politicians, things stop,” he said. “Every simple investigative activity reaches the top of the pyramid, sometimes to the attorney general himself, even if it is not at all necessary. The attorney general wants another meeting, another examination, things are dragged out and the police understand the message and make do with the lower levels. An atmosphere of avoiding investigating has been created.”

The claim that the public cares more about feeling safe on the street than about investigating corruption comes up repeatedly in conversations with police officials. Accordingly, resources have recently been diverted from Lahav 433 to other purposes.

The national unit for investigating economic crimes, for example, focused in the past on investigating allegations of corruption in the area of infrastructure, but since Shabtai took command, forces from the unit have been diverted to the fight against extortion of protection money.

The unit’s workforce has not increased, so its investigation of corruption has been neglected. “In the end it comes at the expense of something,” said one police official. “The fight against corruption has been moved to the back burner in the last half year.”

“The police don’t need to operate according to what the public wants, but according to what is important to the state, and the fight against corruption is important,” said another police official.

This chilling wind is reinforced by awareness of what has happened to corruption investigators, first and foremost in cases linked to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Brig. Gen. Koresh Barnur, who led the investigations, was transferred to a relatively peripheral job, the commander of the national police college.

The head of the investigative team, Chief Superintendent Momi Meshulam, was given a minor post, the head of the national unit for the investigation of prison guards. Superintendent Tzahi Havkin, who was part of the Netanyahu investigations, remained at the same rank even though senior officers promised him a promotion a number of times.

Police Brig. Gen. Eran Kamin, who led many corruption investigations, including the case against Sara Netanyahu, was not selected as the commander of the national fraud squad even though he was the sole candidate for the job. Shabtai appointed a different officer to head the unit, and sent Kamin to the United States as the police attaché in Washington.

Many in the police feel that because every appointment from the rank of chief superintendent and up requires the approval of the public security minister is problematic when it comes to investigating corruption. “People aren’t stupid, they see what happens to those who deal with the issue,” said a senior officer.

“People are afraid of dealing with politicians,” say others. “They are afraid for their own advancement, and understand that if they touch it they have a glass ceiling, that the national fraud squad is a graveyard for officers, and they will not advance from large cases. They saw what the Netanyahu investigations did to the police and [legal] system, and what they did to those who touched it.”

In a written response, the Israel Police refuted the claims, saying, in part: “There is not and was not any order or instruction of the police command, including the commissioner, not to address [corruption allegations]. All information or complaints received by the police are examined carefully in the investigation rooms, not the media.”

The police also said there has been no foot-dragging in investigating criminal allegations in general and corruption in particular.

The Justice Ministry said “There is no truth to the overly broad claims made in your questions in the name of anonymous people. Cooperation among the attorney general, the prosecution and the police is excellent, and the achievements speak for themselves.”

One senior officer, speaking anonymously, describes an atmosphere of defeatism surrounding corruption probes. “In the past, there was real enthusiasm to eradicate corruption, People went around with a sense of a mission, as if the police were the last line of battle fortifications."

"Today, appointments are made out of a clear intention for there not to be such enthusiasm, from fear of politicians and what it will do to the police and their careers. The fight against crime in Arab communities is important and technology is important, but corruption investigations have been pushed to the sidelines, if at all,” they added.

The police added: “The investigations and intelligence branch, and the Lahav 433 unit inside it, operate incessantly, impartially and without delay against anyone suspected of allegations of public corruption, without any connection to their public status of position, and all this according to the strict regulations for examining and approving the necessary actions by the State Prosecutor’s Office and the attorney general.”

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