In Hot Pursuit of a New Police Chief

Police investigation squads have never been busier, but there are few leads in the search for a worthy police commissioner

On the way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the Lod junction takes the traveler onto Route 40, where a choice is offered: either north, to the Israel Police Serious and International Crimes Unit in Petah Tikva, or south, to the Financial Crimes Unit in Lod. Knesset members and cabinet ministers who are summoned for questioning find themselves wavering between the two and sometimes continue west, to the National Fraud Unit in Bat Yam.

The industry of investigating public figures in Israel has never had it so good, with the president, prime minister, finance minister, deputy prime minister for strategic threats and an occasional MK all on the line. Not to mention the cases that have been completed, such as the former justice minister who has been convicted and sentenced and the former public security minister who is facing trial. There have never been so many all at once.

Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson's car turned south on Route 40, drove around the nondescript industrial zone of the old city of Lod, crossed the railway tracks and turned left to the building whose window bars are painted red: the compound shared by the nearby airport's freight depot and the financial crimes squad.

A few years back, the treasury's deputy budget director, Kobi Haber, approached the head of the international crime squad, Yohanan Danino, about creating a unit to fight the plague of fraud at the National Insurance Institute (NII). Just a few dozen investigators headed by a chief superintendent, Haber said. Hundreds, under a brigadier general, Danino insisted. The treasury was won over and the idea was put into practice very effectively - as the finance minister could see with his own eyes this week when he came to the unit as a criminal suspect.

Haber has since been promoted to budget director and Danino is a major general and the head of the intelligence and investigations unit, while Hirchson is taking the opposite path, from top to bottom. The suspicions against him are so serious and the evidence so strong that everyone knows an indictment is coming. The talk about "being framed" is unfounded. The basket of evidence, as the investigators like to call it, was full and will shortly be sent to the prosecution.

Hirchson entered the elevator, passed the ground floor, where NII fraud is investigated, and got off at the second floor, home of the financial crimes unit and the special investigations teams. Three or four steps, then left to the corridor. One door bears the number 258, on another is a sign announcing that it contains a branch of the stolen vehicles unit; the first door to the right, the interrogation room, has neither name nor number. An officer opened the door: The room is quite spacious, with a red window whose shuttered blinds repel potential peepers, two tables, a computer and a small coffee corner with an electric kettle. This is where Hirchson was to spend eight hours being questioned by a team led by the unit's commander, Yoav Segalovitch, and division head Chief Superintendent Effi Bracha.

Segalovitch is the only person in the country who is sometimes too busy to meet the president because he is interrogating the finance minister, for whom he has time because he has finished questioning the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee regarding the period when he was environment minister. Moshe Katsav, Tzachi Hanegbi, Hirchson - each one could have his own chapter in Segalovitch's memoirs. Ehud Olmert, Avigdor Lieberman and others will each have his own volume, written by Segalovitch's colleagues in the various police investigation units.

Segalovitch has been friends with (and is soon to be the deputy to) Danino, his direct superior, ever since the 1980s when they were together in the paratroopers. Segalovitch was the intelligence officer of the reconnaissance unit and Danino was the brigade operations officer. They went to law school together, and after Danino joined the police force, Segalovitch was persuaded to follow. It can be said that Danino and Segalovitch are as close as - not to compare them - Olmert and Hirchson.

The Israel Police investigates half a million cases every year. About one out of six results in an indictment. In cases involving senior officials, which are naturally more sensitive, that figure is much higher. By law, the head of the investigations division must be informed of any complaint concerning a cabinet minister, MK, lawyer or journalist, so that he can approve the procedure. The division head decides whether to leave the handling of the case in the district, as in the case of MK Yoram Marciano, or transfer it to the national unit. (Hirchson's investigation began in the Tel Aviv fraud division). That's from the top down.

From the bottom up, the division head informs the state prosecutor and the attorney general. As a result, cases that are handled successfully by the police investigation units are highly likely to turn into indictments; and the more senior the suspect is, the more likely the investigation will be thorough and closely followed, from the start, by the division head and the prosecutorial levels above him - the state prosecutor and the attorney general.

By a strange coincidence, this system has received support for its activity in the past year from two other influential figures - the state comptroller and the Finance Ministry's accountant general. Police officers are annoyed about the publication of details from the state comptroller's examinations, but many of the documents found by his staff and the statements they recorded were instrumental in "nailing" the suspects. Accountant General Yaron Zelekha turned out to be telling the truth in everything he reported to the comptroller and the police about the Bank Leumi tender.

There is little direct connection between this activity and the identity of the police commissioner. His influence is indirect: He decides, with the approval of the public security minister, about important appointments to the investigation division. Danino and Segalovitch, who are older than National Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi, were not born into the division's elite leadership. They were directed there, just as their predecessors and their subordinates were. A commissioner who is spineless and who serves the interests of politicians could appoint someone who shelves most cases.

The best police commissioner in the history of the Israel Police was Shaul Rosolio, in the 1970s. He went to the universities and the army to recruit a new generation of intelligence and operations officers and jurists who became the command echelon of the previous decade. The challenge for Public Security Minister Avi Dichter is to find a new Rosolio, but in order for there to be a Rosolio of this kind, there also has to be a serious minister. The only import Dichter proposed in the past year was to the bringing in of the head of logistics in the Shin Bet security service to head the police Logistical Support Department. He has not fought for a really important post, as one of his predecessors, Shlomo Ben-Ami, did when he insisted that Moshe Mizrahi be appointed head of the investigations division.

A few days before the publication of the Zeiler report, which led to the resignation of Moshe Karadi, Yaakov Ganot told friends that if Dichter proposed appointing him police commissioner, he would not be tempted because he is "too much of an old whore" for the public debate that would arise about his ethics. That is what he told them, but he was tempted. Dichter's failure in the Ganot appointment affair was easy to predict; only Dichter, in his euphoria, was blind to it.

In the wake of this failure, Dichter sounded depressed for the first time, even though he continued uttering the slogan, "reform." A police major general was asked Wednesday what he and his colleagues would do if Dichter made them select the next commissioner, like cardinals choosing the new pope. He did not want to place any bets but said he assumed that David Tzur, Uri Bar-Lev and Shahar Ayalon - and, if a change in direction is still possible, Benny Kaniak - would make the final cut. If the question had been asked three years ago, Moshe Karadi's name would not have been mentioned.