With New Sexual Harassment Allegations, Israel's Police Chief Faces a Challenge

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His usual smiling self, no creased brow that might reveal a tremulous anticipation, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino arrived last night at the National Security College in Glilot. Danino was on hand to honor by his presence the police officers who were part of the recent graduating class of the NSC. He was accompanied by the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Division, Major General Yoav Segalovich, and the head of the Human Resources Division, Major General Yaron Be'eri. They engaged in small talk with the other officers present. All was business as usual.

But at 8:30 p.m., standing by the coffee stand, Danino held a muffled exchange with his aide, Yoav Telem, and the commissioner quietly went into crisis mode. Be'eri, who'd left for his home in Binyamina, was alerted, and had to make a U-turn at the Wingate Institute. The commissioner and the two major generals withdrew to a room off to the side. It was impossible not to notice that something was going on, but exactly what was still a mystery. Clearly, something was amiss, something that had a personnel aspect to it that would warrant the return to Glilot of the head of human resources. But the secret was kept. Exactly what it was only came to light this morning.

The matter due to which the Jerusalem District commander and the Zion Region commander have been compelled to take forced leave is the most serious crisis faced by the Israel Police since Danino took over as commissioner 15 months ago. This is, then, his test of leadership – how to lead the police, both inwardly and in the public eye, amid embarrassing personal and organizational circumstances.

As in every system based on rank and aspirations for promotion, the upper echelons of the police are no social club. The more senior officers compete among themselves no less than do their lower-ranked counterparts. Nevertheless, it was possible to discern among the major generals and their entourage a sense of sincere sadness for Niso Shaham. Everyone, except for those who have been scarred by his sharp tongue, spoke of a professional, knowledgeable officer, determined to realize his world view on fighting crime and enforcing public order, callous and vitriolic but purposeful, and well versed in the Israeli (and Palestinian) reality. Not a commander you can easily do without, and most certainly not during the tense month of the Ramadan fast.

The veteran patrol and investigations officers were personally sorry for Shaham and his wife, Brigadier General Varda Shaham, who only a few weeks ago completed her term as deputy to Segalovich – she vehemently refused to be a candidate for the position of head of the Investigations and Intelligence Division – and began her pre-retirement holiday.

This is, then, the first part of Danino's test – how to put one's emotions to the side and follow the rulebook. How to deal with a major general and a brigadier general (Nissim Edri, the region commander), no matter who they are and how close you are to them, as you would with every other target of an investigation. How to thwart any destructive impression of showing preference, just like the opposite impression, every bit as misleading, of "marking targets" and "framing." It was Danino, then head of the Investigations and Intelligence Division, who without initially knowing the identity of the suspect, led the investigation of then-justice minister Haim Ramon who was suspected of sexual assault (a charge that was upheld in court).

In the present affair, the police have been aided by the fact that the clandestine investigation was conducted outside its bounds, namely in the Justice Ministry's Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID), which again proved its essentialness. Who would believe an internal affairs unit of the police – which was the predecessor to the Justice Ministry unit?

The double irony is easy to see. When she held a commander's rank, Varda Shaham was the deputy head of the internal affairs unit. Meanwhile, attorney Uri Carmel, who has headed the PIID for the past year, is one of the three lawyers (along with Shai Nitzan and Shlomo Lemberger) who Danino and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch considered bringing in to head the Investigations and Intelligence Division until Segalovich acceded to his pleas and deferred his retirement to late 2013, if not later.

Danino was informed of the investigation in the middle of the week, as was Segalovich, but they were not given any details. Details were given to State's Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and to State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, who have been Niso Shaham's hosts at dozens of working meetings on police matters in Jerusalem. The police commissioner waited for official word that the investigation had been completed. Only then, between Wednesday and Thursday, were Shaham and Edri placed on leave. Before his promotion to regional commander, Edri had been the district operations officer.

Danino immediately sent back to Jerusalem the recently promoted Major General Meni Yitzhaki, who was until a short time ago the deputy commander of the district. This post has not yet been filled. Among the candidates for the deputy commander job are brigadier generals in the Border Police and the head of training department at National Police Headquarters, Doron Yedid.

The second and more significant part of Danino's test will deal with the organizational culture of the police and the degree of confidence that policemen - and policewomen – have in the system. Danino will be required to prove that the police do not show favoritism or bias, that the complaint of a female sergeant is heard in the same way as is the response of a major general. No less important are the personal relationships, consensual or not, the corrosive acid of lies, whitewashing and cover-ups, which are characteristic of the popular image of the Israel Police, and something that no commissioner has been able to eradicate.

It is a surprise test, thrown on Danino's desk with the same abruptness that the PIID investigators appeared at Shaham's door. He will have to stand before his fellow citizens and policemen today or tomorrow and signal the directions of his leadership. He does not have a lot of time. If Shaham's leave is prolonged, Danino will have to appoint – with Aharonovitch's approval – a permanent commander for the Jerusalem District. It would be a major general, such as Yossi Pariente from the Southern District, or Bruno Stein of the Traffic Police.

During Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Danino moved from the Investigations and Intelligence Division to the Southern District, at the time of the forced leave of Brigadier General Uri Bar-Lev. At the end of this year, midway through Danino's term, his second deputy is set to be appointed, in place of Major General Israel Yitzhak. Shortly afterward, the competition for Israel's next police commissioner will heat up. In the event that the internal candidates fail to excite the minister of internal security, whoever that might be after the next elections to Knesset, and if Segalovich continues to resist a move toward the commissioner's office, then for the first time since the appointment of army general Herzl Shafir as head of the Israel Police we could be seeing a commissioner selected from outside police ranks, such as IDF Major General Avi Mizrachi.

The Shaham affair challenges Danino to adopt a delicate balance between the rights of all of the parties involved, of the police and of the public. If he finds himself with a rare free moment, he may recall that if not for another affair, the man who could have been in his place now, making these sensitive decisions, is Uri Bar-Lev, who has since the disclosure of his own troubles retired from the police, and excelled in his business ventures.

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Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, right, in Tel Aviv. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum