Analysis

With Attack on Police Chief, Netanyahu Made One Tactical Error Too Many

The latest burst of investigations and associates turning state’s evidence is putting Netanyahu to his first real test

Roni Alsheich, back to camera, and Benjamin Netanyahu at Kafr Kana in the north.
Gil Eliahu

The defense strategy of the prime minister, his attorneys and advisers totally collapsed this week. The well-planned delegitimization campaign waged in recent months against Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich (to which he himself contributed with mistakes) was apparently also aimed at deterring someone else, the attorney general.

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Compared to Alsheich, Avichai Mendelblit is perceived as less tough and more vulnerable to pressure. The campaign against the commissioner on the eve of the police’s recommendations in the corruption cases against Netanyahu showed the attorney general what he could expect ahead of the next phase: his decision on whether to indict Netanyahu.

But it seems the prime minister made a grave tactical error by directly confronting the police commissioner. This was clear during Alsheich’s appearance before the Knesset Interior Committee. There was a brief dramatic interruption when the police landed another blow on Netanyahu by announcing an investigation into former Judge Hila Gerstl, who allegedly was offered the attorney general’s job by a Netanyahu confidant if she dropped a case against the prime minister’s wife.

Alsheich was previously a deputy director of the Shin Bet security service, and he remains a Shin Bet man at heart. It’s not by chance that in his many years in the service his skills as an investigator and a wily, sophisticated manager were considered legendary.

His religious-Zionist education, long sojourn in West Bank settlements and ties with the Netanyahu family – some Shin Bet people think Alsheich was a dominant player in the appointment of his friend Yoram Cohen to head the organization – all became less relevant once the dispute became personal, pitting the prime minister against the commissioner.

Based on a superficial acquaintance with Alsheich, it seems there’s nothing he likes more than a battle of wits and power. The desire to have the upper hand – whether in finding a terror cell in the West Bank or investigating a prime minister – remains paramount. Alsheich operated in a puzzling way several times during his first year in office, ranging from the affair of Roni Ritman, the head of the police anti-fraud unit who was implicated in alleged sexual misconduct, to the incident at Umm al-Hiran where the police shot and killed a Bedouin man.

The aggressive campaign against him in recent months by Netanyahu supporters has only made him more combative. A commissioner’s involvement in investigations is usually limited, but there’s no doubt about his support for his investigators in the face of the attacks by the prime minister.

The way things looked at the end of this week, Netanyahu’s hubris of recent years may be ending a glorious political career. Anyone tempted to explain the great public sympathy for Netanyahu via the power of the tribal drumbeat is taking the easy path. We can’t ignore the man’s skills and the confidence many people have in him as the only barrier against the return of the period 15 years ago when buses were being blown up on Israeli streets.

The second intifada remains Israelis’ formative experience when they go to the polls. Worries about personal security, with added concerns about evacuating settlements, have closed ranks around the leader as people ignore his severe conduct flaws.

The latest burst of investigations and associates turning state’s evidence is putting Netanyahu to a real test for the first time. Even if Netanyahu has to depart, candidates on the center-left may be weighed down by their lack of a security-military background. That is, if as in previous elections, Israelis go to the polls against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s alleged malfeasance.