Analysis

A Set Term for Israel's Police Chief Wound End Issues Surrounding the Appointment

That's particularly important when the prime minister is facing several criminal investigations

Israeli Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich speaking at the Herzliya Conference, in May 2018.
Meged Gozani

The circumstances surrounding the end of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich’s term clearly highlight the problematic nature of the term of office of the chief of the Israel Police and the manner in which the occupant of the post is appointed. The three-year term, which the public security minister is authorized to extend — or not — for another year, makes the commissioner dependent on the government’s goodwill.

If the government of the day opposes the fight against government corruption, a commissioner interested in having his term extended might be invited to toe the government's line. Though his performance as commissioner is not without its problems, to Alsheich’s great credit he categorically rejected that approach and demonstrated absolute loyalty to Israel’s fundamental, long-term values as a law-abiding country that fights government corruption.

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The significance of the fact that Alsheich's term was not extended for an additional year cannot be ignored. A commissioner committed to the rule of law (rather than to the power of the government of the day) will pay a price: His head as a professional will roll. In this case, the message resonates particularly loudly since everyone knows that Alsheich is a reformer who is in the middle of making fundamental changes in how the police work. Ending his tenure will probably thwart his reform efforts, which include boosting police professionalism through reliance on the most current scientific knowledge and an emphasis on crime prevention.

The implicit message is that the real test of how a police commissioner is doing his job is not how well he works to improve police performance, but his personal loyalty to the prime minister, even when the prime minister is suspected of criminal wrongdoing. While there was never any persuasive justification for the current method used to select a police commissioner, when it comes to a government that has been undermining the rule of law, it constitutes a real danger. For this reason, the commissioner's term should be for a set, non-extendable period — five years, for example.

It is a big mistake to think that the choice of police commissioner is not important in standing up for the rule of law and its equal application. The commissioner has great influence over the tone of the organization he leads. A commissioner whose first loyalty is to the government rather than the rule of law will infuse the police force with a bad tone.

That will manifest itself in foot-dragging and doing only the minimum necessary to fight government corruption. In the absence of a complainant, the fight against corruption is very much dependent on proactive action that a commissioner interested in ingratiating himself with the government will not take. It is very easy to “win” the battle against government corruption by turning a blind eye. In the absence of investigations, corruption is not uncovered.

>> Read more: Netanyahu May Have Gotten Rid of Israel's Police Chief, but Not of His Corruption Probes | Analysis

When one looks at the work of prior commissioners, one finds significant differences among them with regard to their loyalty to the government as opposed to their loyalty to the law and to the public. Even if the term of office of future commissioners is set for an unchangeable period, the commissioner might still have reason to please the government, if he is eyeing a prominent position once his term is over. It therefore isn’t enough to limit the commissioner’s term.

Space does not permit a description of how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made use of appointments ever since his first term in office. Suffice it to mention the crude manner in which, at the beginning of his first term, he dismissed Civil Service Commissioner Yitzhak Galnoor; his recent puzzling moves with regard to the appointment of a new civil service commissioner; and the corrupt way in which he allegedly tried to entice Alsheich by promising him the leadership of the Shin Bet security service after he completed his term as police commissioner. From these few examples, one can see that Netanyahu’s primary consideration is not the well-being of public institutions or the public at large, but rather what suits him personally and politically. When he had to make the choice of siding with his bureau chief at the time, Natan Eshel, or the upstanding public servants who turned over evidence that Eshel had engaged in sexual harassment, Netanyahu chose Eshel.

The problematic nature of this trend became even more serious when the prime minister became a suspect in a series of serious criminal cases. And the prime minister's cabinet includes other criminal suspects as well as convicted criminals. From that standpoint, having the cabinet appoint the police commissioner is like allowing the cat to guard the cream, even if a few of the cats agree not to vote. The existence of an appointment committee does not solve the problem because it is a committee whose members are themselves appointed by the cabinet and because its mandate is limited to preventing clearly problematic appointments. It is not meant to ensure that the most suitable person is appointed, nor can it do so.

The clear interest of all Israeli citizens is that the person appointed to be police commissioner be the most suitable, first and foremost in terms of his personal integrity and his unconditional commitment to the rule of law. This can only be assured if the candidate search is in the hands of an independent committee whose choice is only submitted to the cabinet for approval once the committee has made its final recommendation.

Here a caveat is necessary. It’s easy for a government to boast over the integrity of an appointment process by convening professional, supposedly independent search committees that are in fact not independent at all. The real question is who is appointing them. The appointment of members of search committees must be entrusted to apolitical state institutions. Appropriate people would include the president, the Supreme Court president and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. This is the preferred procedure in principle, and what is required under the current circumstances.

It is only in this way that it will be possible to eliminate the danger that those who support government corruption or don’t take it seriously would take control of the police, the bastion of the rule of law, by appointing a Trojan horse to head the force.