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With a Knowing Smile, Israel's Police Chief Promises a Surprise in the Netanyahu Probes

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu, dressed in a singlet, lunges at a similarly-dressed Alshiech in a wrestling ring.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

If there was one thing that stood out in Ilana Dayan’s interview with Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, broadcast on Wednesday on the “Fact” investigative show, it was the tremendous enjoyment Alsheich takes in his position. Whether or not he was trying to display restraint, his self-satisfaction and the pleasure he derives from the immense power placed in his hands lit up the screen like a fireworks display combined with a stand-up performance.

There was a mischievous glint in Alsheich’s eyes when he vowed that “many will be surprised” when the police recommendations regarding the investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are made public (apparently next week). Don’t go anywhere, he seemed to be telling the viewers. It’s gonna be interesting.

A wicked smile crossed the police chief’s face when he said that he’s familiar with every word and every letter in the investigative material. It was a direct message to Netanyahu: I know things about you that you don’t even know about yourself. And soon Israel’s citizens will get a taste of these goodies, and they will judge whether, to paraphrase the premier, there will be nothing because there was nothing.

For 18 months, Alsheich and his organization have been subjected to frontal attacks from every direction: the social networks, the Knesset, the coalition and Likud. The whole semi-mafioso campaign was led by the prime minister. His contractors and henchmen? Likud MKs David Bitan and David Amsalem, who bring up bills that smack of criminality, and the pals of his son Yair, who manage the new media for Bibi.

We’ve seen confrontations in the past between politicians, on the one hand, and police chiefs and investigators. But an orchestrated campaign like this one, rife with vilification, mudslinging and a concentrated effort to delegitimize the Israel Police, is unprecedented. When the prime minister is letting loose against the men in blue, there’s no problem with “timing.” The commissioner is permitted to give an interview, as he did with Dayan, and respond succinctly to the person who systematically displays contempt for him and his senior associates in militant speeches, toxic posts and clips, and briefings to the local media.

If there were, as Alsheich claims, private investigators who tried to collect incriminating information about those who were on the Netanyahu cases – that must be looked into. If there were, surely no footprints leading to the premier will be found. The promise he made to Alsheich on the eve of the latter’s appointment as police commissioner – to appoint him head of the Shin Bet security service after he completes his tenure with the police – is enough to suspect the prime minister of harboring ulterior motives. Yes, Bibi probably knew, already then.

The long series of investigations that went on and on and passed various deadlines is finally coming to an end. Cases 1000 and 2000 (involving, respectively, alleged illegal receipt of valuable gifts from business figures, and conversations with Yediot Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes in order to gain more favorable coverage) will be sent to the state prosecution and then to the attorney general. The conclusions reached by investigators, along with new details and testimonies, will be made public.

Every leak from the investigations, every trickle, even if it didn’t originate with the police, will serve as a weapon in the hands of the prime minister and his spokespersons to allege that the police work was biased and vengeful. Netanyahu reached that conclusion long ago. His address is the public. He knows that the attorneys at the State Prosecutor’s Office don’t treat such background noises seriously. They’re familiar with the investigative material and recognize the integrity of those doing all the work.

The question of how the coalition party leaders will react to the police recommendations, even if they include a call for a bribery indictment, has already been answered: they will hold back. They will accommodate the information. They will roll their eyes and ask everyone to be patient until Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit makes his decisions, and any guess as to when that will be is superfluous and pointless.

That’s a not unreasonable stance for the coalition heads to take, in the light of the law that stipulates that a prime minister can continue in office until there is a final conviction. Their stand is morally flawed and publicly untenable, but that’s their affair.

Miri Regev and Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset in 2016.Credit: Emil salman

Taking aim

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot surveyed the situation in the Gaza Strip at the Sunday cabinet meeting. As usual, ministers were allowed to respond; while waiting for their turn, they often busy themselves with their affairs, leave the room or peruse their mail.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is known to have little interest in his colleagues’ cogitations. When Eisenkot finished, he began going through his papers. Culture and Sports Minister, Brig. Gen. (res.) Miri Regev launched into a monologue that included the line, “In the meantime, I’m not attending mugim meetings”

“Mugim” is a Hebrew acronym for military “operations and forays.” Every Thursday, Lieberman meets with the General Staff top staff to discuss and authorize (or not) the army’s most sensitive and secret activities.

Lieberman, immersed in his documents, snapped his head as if he’d been stung by the Asian tiger mosquito. He gave a Regev a withering look (according to one minister) and mumbled sarcastically, “In the meantime,” before returning to his papers.

He may have guffawed and others may have hidden a smile, but Regev wasn’t joking. She has no lack of ambition or self-esteem. The Defense Ministry is an essential station for her on the way to the Prime Minister’s Bureau. But she will never say, “In the meantime I’m not attending varash meetings” (referring to the committee of chiefs of the secret services headed by the prime minister). That would cost her dearly.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) employs similar tactics, but is more sophisticated than Regev. This week, in an Army Radio interview, he dropped a bombshell: “The defense minister, through emissaries, is traveling the world and collecting money that goes straight to Hamas,” he said accusingly.

Katz was referring to the financial aid Israel is organizing to ease the severe humanitarian crisis in the Strip, whose consequences Eisenkot warned about. Unlike the “collaborator” Lieberman, Katz keeps pushing another idea: creation of an artificial island off the Gaza coast that would generate thousands of jobs and free Israel of having to ensure the livelihood of the wretched Palestinians. A green island (like the color of Hamas’ flag) in the sea.

Some ministers support Katz’s proposal. Lieberman, the relevant minister, freaks out when he hears it. He thinks Katz’s plan is intended solely to enhance his image as a security authority, in advance of the Likud leadership primary. “Yisrael is very frustrated,” he averred this week. “No one knows what he’s doing in the Intelligence Affairs Ministry. It’s plain to him that he’ll never be prime minister, so he’s trying to be a security wiz. I don’t understand his madness. The fact that he’s raising these ideas now, before the problem of our prisoners and captives [in Gaza] has been resolved, is itself a prize for Hamas. They think they’ve succeeded in breaking us.”

Beyond the political/psychological analysis of his colleague, Lieberman has five reasons for not creating the island: 1. Its pricetag of $10 billion, funds that Israel would have to raise internationally; 2. Security arrangements that would cost hundreds of millions of shekels a year; 3. In the past, Gaza had an airport intended for the same purposes Katz is now talking about, under Israeli security control, and the Gazans violated agreements, clashed with the Israelis repeatedly; in 2001, during the second intifada, the airfield was destroyed; 4. In Jericho, there was a prison where murderers and terrorists that the Palestinian Authority tried were incarcerated, and that too was one big show; in 2014, the prison was destroyed. 5. The Rafah crossing for the movement of goods and people was supervised by European forces and was under remote Israeli control, but it was closed in 2006, when security breaches were discovered.

In short, Lieberman is saying: Go trust the Arabs to behave properly.

“Anyone working in the construction of the island will be exposed to Hamas terrorism and harassment. The fact that a debate is even being conducted over this folly is insane. The entire defense establishment is against it. I suggest,” Lieberman concluded, “that the transportation minister occupy himself with traffic accidents in Israel before he solves the problems of Gaza. It was very bad week here [in terms of accidents].”

There’s no doubt that Katz is after high visibility on security and strategic issues. Is he succeeding? Not really, though the island initiative definitely garnered attention in Israel and in the international community, which is concerned about the bitter fate of Gaza.

Meretz leader Zehava Galon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Stopping at red

Two weeks ago, the Institute for National Security Studies held a conference in Tel Aviv. One speaker was Zehava Galon, the head of Meretz. What she said was controversial, to put it mildly, but no one protested.

Galon exhorted the public to foment a popular uprising – “civil disobedience,” she called it – if the Knesset passes a bill to annex the territories, such as the one being sponsored by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi. (A similar bill, sponsored by Likud MK Yoav Kish and Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, is due to be on the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation next Sunday.)

“Annexation without naturalization is illegal,” Galon said. “It must be opposed by broad, significant civil disobedience. Nonviolent, of course.”

Every nation must set red lines, she added. Israel’s transformation into an apartheid state is such a line and demands a response. “We will not send our sons to kill and be killed for a messianic project totally unrelated to security,” she said, tacitly encouraging refusal to serve. “We will not expel people from their homes or suppress Palestinians forever.”

She added: “This is a moral imperative. Even if the government passes 10 annexation laws and a Jerusalem law, it will not succeed in implementing them. Some will not obey them.”

I asked her, this week, what she considers an “unlawful law.” If the Knesset passes a law to annex the areas of Zone C in the West Bank, it’s a valid law, as long as the High Court of Justice doesn’t strike it down.

“I will not wait for the High Court to decide,” she said. “A law that turns Israel into an apartheid state is not a moral law and it is also not legal, and I will not obey it. Obedience to the law is not an absolute obligation. In certain circumstances, it is necessary and permitted to break the law.”

As an example, she cites the refusal of groups of citizens – pilots, physicians – to lend a hand to the deportation of asylum seekers to Africa. “Today there is a competition between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi over who is the greatest patriot, who will annex [territories]. One morning we could wake up and find the law up for a vote. We must make clear in advance that we will not permit it.”

I asked Galon if she would show understanding for similar steps the right wing might take if the establishment of a Palestinian state and the evacuation of settlements were in the offing. “I respect people who struggle nonviolently and are ready to pay a price,” she replied. “It’s not the same thing. The set of principles I believe in isn’t on the same level as the values of the right. There’s a difference between disobedience in a situation in which democratic values are trampled, and disobedience when those values are promoted. There are values above the law: democratic, humanistic principles.

I said her remarks at the INSS confab hinted strongly at a validation of refusal to serve in the army or disobey orders. “I did not call for refusal,” she said. “In my eyes, the problem is not refusal but obedience.”

Her comments cannot be divorced from the present political situation. The primary to elect the next Meretz leader is on March 22. The candidates are honing their positions. MK Tamar Zandberg said here last week that she would agree to be a member of a government in which Lieberman was also a member. Galon accused her of “flushing ideology down the toilet.” Zandberg retorted that Galon was resorting to “gutter language.”

The sharp division serves them both, above all the challenger. The quarrel that slid into language never before heard in this prim and proper party raised full-force the issue (which is still theoretical) of joining a future coalition.

If Galon is reelected, her support for a civil revolt will not make it easier, to say the least, for Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) or Avi Gabbay (Labor) to coopt into a coalition under their leadership the left-wing party that’s forgotten what the taste of power is. We’ll jump from that bridge when we get to the river.

MK Stav Shaffir at the Knesset, January 2, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Show time

Last week MK Stav Shaffir (Labor-Zionist Union) was punished by the Knesset’s Ethics Committee: She was suspended from attending plenum debates for a week after she called MK Miki Zohar (Likud) “corrupt,” and refused to apologize. She decided to appeal the suspension and seemed to have a case. “Corrupt” is a term that’s frequently used in the Israeli parliament. Since when do you get punished for using a commonly heard epithet? Shaffir exploited the incident impressively to her advantage in the social networks, which is mostly where her public existence plays out. Glittering outside, hollow within, like most of her activity.

Because it wasn’t for just one word that she was slapped with the sanction. What happened was that about six weeks ago, the Knesset’s Finance Committee discussed budgetary transfers for 2017. Shaffir asked the representative of the Finance Ministry questions on a matter pertaining to the Dead Sea Works.

Zohar, the coalition coordinator on the committee, interrupted her occasionally. She lost her cool and started screaming at him, “Corrupt! Corrupt!” She explained by noting that Zohar had dealt with an issue on which he had a conflict of interest in the Special Committee on Distributive Justice. (The Ethics Committee, which dealt with the complaint against Zohar for that, ruled that he had made a mistake in good faith, and forbade him to deal with the subject. He obediently desisted.)

Shaffir raged until the chairman, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), a patient individual, sent her out to cool down. She left, returned after a short time and again lambasted Zohar: Corrupt! Corrupt! Those present gaped at her, appalled.

When she was certain the event had been documented by the Knesset Channel, she collected her papers and left. Another day of mudslinging for Stav Shaffir. The unfortunate Zohar didn’t know what hit him.

One of those present happened to be MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), chairman of the Ethics Committee and one of the most honest, esteemed and popular MKs. Vaknin tried to persuade Shaffir to apologize; after all, she knew the facts in the Zohar case.

She wouldn’t hear of it. She’s the epitome of perfection, the pope and the chair of a bland subcommittee on transparency and her decision is final. If anyone needs to apologize, it’s him.

Zohar filed a complaint with the Ethics Committee, which punished her. Shaffir, wallowing in the affront, told colleagues she expected them to support her appeal. “In an unprecedented move, the most corrupt coalition in the history of the Knesset decided to suspend me,” she tweeted.

Another lie. It wasn’t “the coalition,” it was the Ethics Committee, which has representatives from all over (Shas, Kulanu, Labor-Zionist Union, Kulanu, Joint Arab List) – and the vote was unanimous. Who cares about facts? Her tweet generated plenty of Likes.

The leaders of the opposition parties were apprised of the appeal. After clarifying the facts, they all decided not to vote in favor.

In Zionist Union, Shaffir’s faction, the collective view was that she would not receive support, because she wasn’t entitled to it. On top of which, for the great majority of Zionist Union MKs, voting against the Ethics Committee and MK Vaknin is out of the question.

Shaffir was stubborn to the last. She believed that her colleagues would have no choice but to back her appeal. Senior Zionist Union members explained if they were to support her untenable appeal, the coalition would have to support a similar move by Likud MK Oren Hazan, who has been suspended for half a year. Her real punishment was the cold shoulder she got from her colleagues in the opposition, who refused to act as extras in her games.

The grotesque appeal played out on Monday in the plenum. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein tried to reason with Shaffir. Zionist Union MKs Tzipi Livi and Shelly Yacimovich scurried about, trying to mediate; neither even considered voting with her and against Vaknin. Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog flitted between Vaknin and Shaffir, begging her to return to sanity.

In the end, she gave up, went to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, the cradle of her political career, and launched a puerile protest demonstration about how they “silenced me.” Peel away Shaffir’s affected niceness and she is like a female Oren Hazan. Both are experts in putting on raucous, vacuous performances, aimed at self-promotion.

Asked for comment, Shaffir repeated her charge of “corruption” against Zohar.“There are those who think that the fight against the right can be conducted as if we are at an English tea party. I and those who sent me to represent them in the Knesset think differently.”

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