Analysis

Netanyahu May Have Gotten Rid of Israel's Police Chief, but Not of His Corruption Probes

The prime minister and his supporters believe the outgoing police chief is the one orchestrating the criminal investigations against him

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich at an event in April 2018.
Moti Milrod

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s decision to end Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich’s tenure is in line with the wishes of his real bosses. These are senior Likud activists, central committee members – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They will determine Erdan’s political future, which he deems as important as any principle.

Erdan told Alsheich on Thursday that he would not extend his term beyond December. The prime minister and his supporters believe the commissioner is the one orchestrating the investigations against Netanyahu, which could, under certain circumstances, end the prime minister’s current term.

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But this view of Alsheich’s role is an optical illusion. Alsheich led the investigations only in the public perception. He provided the senior suspects with the scapegoat whom they can accuse of persecuting them for personal motives. In the Lieberman case – in which the Yisrael Beiteinu leader was investigated, it was Commander Moshe Mizrahi who filled that role; In the Olmert investigations it was then-police chief Moshe Lador. This time, the flamboyant and domineering Alsheich fit the typecast.

When it comes to the investigations against Netanyahu – the champagne-and-cigars affair (Case 1000); the abortive deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes (Case 2000) and the bid for favorable media coverage in exchange for benefits to Bezeq owners (Case 4000) – the outgoing commissioner had far less influence than others whose names mean almost nothing to the public. For example, former fraud squad chief Koresh Bar-Nur and attorneys Liat Ben Ari and Nurit Litman.

Had Alsheich submitted to the bosses, he could have disrupted the investigations marginally, by discouraging his subordinates in the investigations division, or by issuing media statements that belittled and ridiculed the suspicions against Netayahu (such as “all there is is cigars and Champagne”).

But the commish did just the opposite: He encouraged and backed the investigators, publicly sided with enlisting state’s witnesses against the boss, supported the police recommendations alleging that Netanyahu had taken bribes, and described, behind closed doors, the cases against the prime minister as strong. The independence he displayed caused some of Netanyahu’s cronies to talk about him privately as a traitor.

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Ostensibly, Erdan had good reason not to extend Alsheich’s tenure. The commish’s insistence, without evidence, that the Umm al-Hiran event (in which a Bedouin driver and soldier were killed) was a terror attack, his contempt toward the Police Investigation Department, his pledge to ignore sexual harassment allegations against senior officers submitted anonymously and the strange, fervent backing he gave the former fraud squad chief Roni Ritman despite the sexual harassment accusations against him. But none of these were the reason for Erdan’s denying him what Netanyahu’s former government unhesitatingly gave his predecessor, Yohanan Danino, at the end of an embarrassing term – a fourth year in office.

After failing to pick the right person for the job, that is, one who would do what they wanted him to do, Netanyahu and Erdan are expected to look for someone who will strictly adhere to their expectations. If anyone in the leadership secretly intends for the next commissioner to sabotage the Netanyahu investigations, it appears the horses have already bolted. By the end of Alsheich’s term the plodding investigations are expected to wind down. And even if they don’t, or if, let’s say, a new case opens against the prime minister or one of his confidants, it is very doubtful that the designated commissioner could really disrupt the probes.

Of course a rotten, corrupt commissioner could leak secret details to senior suspects and fatally obstruct investigations. But on the cautious assumption that none of the candidates is a criminal-in-uniform, Netanyahu isn’t expected to gain anything substantial by this changing of the guards in the top police spot.

From the moment he resumed office in 2009, and as a lesson from his first term, Netanyahu set out to cast amenable, acquiescent people as gate keepers, who would not let him fall into a criminal abyss.

The fact that he is currently a suspect in three cases shows that it’s not enough to carefully select the chiefs to ensure a considerate, submissive law enforcement system. The forces acting from below – alongside a free press – can shake even the head of a system who isn’t interested in rocking the boat. In order to get total immunity it isn’t enough for the prime minister to replace the commissioner. He must replace everyone.