Who Polices the Chief of Police?

The blurred boundaries between politics and policing are bad for law enforcement.

The spokesman for the Israel Police, Commander Rafi Yafeh, told crime reporters yesterday that the police had completed an important investigation, called Pikuah Nefesh ("Saving a Life" ), a not-so-subtle allusion to the Hebrew word for inspector, mefake'ah. And who's higher up the inspector list than the police commissioner, referred to in Hebrew as the mefake'ah klali, or inspector general?

The higher-ups in the police force would love to occupy the post of outgoing police chief David Cohen, and the fight over his seat really is being waged over the saving of the police force. Unfortunately, the completed investigation turns out to be a minor matter, however large it looms to those involved. It relates to a city inspector alleged to have blackmailed a migrant worker.

But the tempest to which the police force has been subjected in recent weeks - a hurricane-level storm related to accusations of sexual harassment against Uri Bar-Lev, a leading candidate for police chief - shows once again the extent to which a reasonable outrage is needed in order to learn the obvious: the process of appointing senior officials is routinely kept secret. This case, which opens a window on the slaughterhouse where the sausages of political appointments are shaped, is the exception. In general, the yawning public wakes up one morning, or hears a live broadcast after the 11 A.M. news (as with Tzachi Hanegbi's appointment of Moshe Karadi as police chief, in 2004 ), and finds itself in a reality to which it had been indifferent until a moment before.

The most significant job belongs not to the police commissioner, but to the minister in charge of the police force. In the first 45 years of statehood, that politician was referred to as the police minister (except for a bad period in which the police force was part of the Interior Ministry, under Minister Yosef Burg ). Today the official is known as the public security minister, a term that Moshe Shahal invented for himself, since in security-minded Israel, keeping the country safe from terror is more prestigious than chasing after thieves.

The minister in charge of the police force has tremendous authority, which the minister's colleagues/rivals in the cabinet allow him to exercise undisturbed, as part of a kind of mutual non-intervention pact between ministers. They aren't aware of the extent of the power - if he is determined to bring it to bear - of the person who appoints the police chief, district commanders and officers from the rank of chief superintendent up, along with the head of the Israel Prison Service, its department heads and some of its officers.

Being in charge of the police force makes the minister, not the police chief, the real commander of the force. He appoints the top officers at will, and not necessarily from within the police ranks. He can dismiss officers or suspend appointments too, and creates a balance of terror, acting as a counterweight to the incumbent police chief and anyone striving to succeed him.

Even before the Boaz Harpaz affair regarding the appointment of the army's next chief of staff, the state comptroller had pointed to the tendency of defense ministers and military chiefs of staff to do what they want when it comes to appointing the top generals who will be the pool from which future chiefs of staff will be chosen. The comptroller said his findings applied to the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad as well, but didn't mention the police force, perhaps because the comptroller's office does not count the police force as one of the state's security agencies.

The current public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, is not a risk-taker or an in-your-face kind of guy. He's not going to appoint a police chief just to irritate his critics. His personality will direct him to a leading officer who is not embroiled in controversy and who won't cause him to be dragged through an embarrassing appeal to the High Court of Justice. But the permeability of the boundaries between politics and policing, including in the City Without Violence plan, which grants the public security minister some influence over the country's mayors, is not good for law enforcement. A serious prime minister does not allow the defense minister to have the final say over who will be the IDF's chief of staff, just as he would not allow the finance minister to decide who should govern the Bank of Israel.

The prime minister and his cabinet have the authority, but it isn't easy to rely on them - and though the words for authority and reliance share the same root in Hebrew, there is a world of difference between the two concepts in the reality of Israeli life. This is bolstered by the intermingling of the executive and legislative branches, leaving the Knesset without real supervision by the cabinet.

Only one person in the system has more power than the public security minister - the one who can restrict his options regarding whom to appoint police commissioner, just as he restricted the defense minister's options in the chief of staff appointment. Israel's real police commissioner is the attorney general, and the real boss of police investigators is the state prosecutor. In the 1990s it was alleged that a certain Shas minister under investigation by the police had tried to maneuver Benjamin Netanyahu, who was serving in his first term as prime minister, into appointing an attorney general who would do the Shas minister's bidding. The system was somewhat changed because of that affair, but the lesson holds.