Rumors swirl over who will lead Israel’s beleaguered police
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Rumors swirl over who will lead Israel’s beleaguered police

Forced to withdraw his first nominee, and with limited options, public security minister will have to scramble to come up with a candidate

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Israeli police walk outside of Jerusalem's Old City (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
Illustrative: Israeli police walk outside of Jerusalem's Old City (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

With the withdrawal of Gal Hirsch’s candidacy for Israel Police commissioner Wednesday night, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan was back at square one in his search for someone to take over a role that was meant to be filled by the start of this month.

But by Thursday morning, at least eight potential candidates — all men — were already been rumored to be up for the position: three IDF generals, three current major generals in the police and two attorneys.

The Public Security Ministry, however, has kept mum on the question of the next candidate.

“We are playing it close to the chest,” a ministry official told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “But once we have a candidate, we will immediately announce it. We expect to make an announcement in the next week or two.”

Yohanan Danino completed his term as police commissioner at the end of June, and a replacement was to be appointed to the position by September 1. His deputy, Major General Bentzi Sau, was named acting commissioner until a suitable candidate could be found.

In August, Erdan announced his intention to bring in Hirsch, a former IDF brigadier general and current CEO of a defense company, as a candidate from outside the police establishment to become commissioner in an effort to shake up the culture of the organization.

In the past two years, of the 18 major generals in the Israel Police — the rank just below that of commissioner — seven have left or been fired under the shadow of a scandal, either related to corruption or sexual misconduct.

Gal Hirsch, a former IDF brigadier-general who had been tapped to be the next head of the Israel Police, arrives to testify before the Turkel Committee vetting his appointment at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gal Hirsch, a former IDF brigadier-general who had been tapped to be the next head of the Israel Police, arrives to testify before the Turkel Committee vetting his appointment at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A public opinion study by Ariel University in the West Bank released in August found that 80 percent of Israelis believe the police force has a problematic organizational culture.

Nevertheless, Hirsch’s nomination brought about a swift, heavy backlash from members of the police establishment, who wanted to see someone from within their own ranks promoted to the position, and some unexpected pushback from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

“The police is not an experimentation laboratory; nor is it a consolation prize,” former police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki, who headed the force in 2001-2008, through the Second Intifada, said earlier this month.

“We need to get to someone of stature who’s relatively experienced,” he said.

In late August, reports came to light that Hirsch’s company, Defensive Shield Holdings, had been investigated by both the Israel Police and the FBI for corruption.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. (Flash 90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. (Flash 90)

Hirsch denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the reports were only trotted out to thwart his appointment. But the attorney general announced earlier this month that he would not approve Hirsch’s nomination until the allegations could be investigated — a process which would take several weeks at least.

Facing an already ugly and drawn-out nomination process, Erdan was forced to rescind Hirsch’s nomination.

The public security minister must now decide if he will continue with his crusade to bring in an outsider to lead the battered organization, or if he will submit to the will of the police’s top brass and appoint someone from within the force.

The outsiders

Assuming Erdan chooses to again lock horns with the police establishment and nominate someone from outside the organization, three IDF generals and two attorneys have been rumored to be on his list of potential candidates.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Tal Russo was allegedly approached by Erdan before Hirsch, but turned down the job.

Russo formerly led the Southern Command and, in reserves, is currently the commander of the secretive Depth Corps, which handles IDF activity beyond Israel’s borders. He has commanded the IDF’s most elite units, and is widely respected as a tough, effective leader.

Southern Command chief Tal Russo arrives at the scene of the terror attack on Har Harif on Friday. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Former Southern Command chief Tal Russo arrives at the scene of the terror attack on Har Harif on Friday. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Unlike most officers, who gain rank by completing the IDF’s rigorous Officers Training Course, Russo earned a battlefield commission for his role in the First Lebanon War, one of the only members of the IDF General Staff ever to do so.

A 2009 profile of Russo by the NRG news site not inaccurately referred to him as “the IDF’s Rambo.”

Despite being one of the army’s most fearless warriors, having seen Hirsch’s difficulties, Russo may be even more unwilling than before to accept another offer by Erdan.

Another possibility, serving Southern Command head Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, is slated to leave his position shortly and he too was allegedly discussed as a possible replacement for Danino.

Commander of the South Front Command, Sami Turgeman, speaks during a press conference, August 5, 2014. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Commander of the South Front Command, Sami Turgeman, speaks during a press conference, August 5, 2014. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Turgeman, who was one of the most prominent figures in last summer’s Gaza conflict, is slated to return to academia upon his release from the army, but his popularity within Israel for his role in Operation Protective Edge may be enough to get him through the nomination process.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yiftach Ron-Tal, the current chairman of the Israeli Electric Corporation, was reportedly recommended by the prime minister during Erdan’s initial search.

Ron-Tal was one of the few generals to come out of the Second Lebanon War — a military operation that was blasted by critics — almost entirely unscathed.

Two attorneys — Uri Carmel and Shlomo Lamberger — have also allegedly been discussed as replacements.

Carmel currently leads the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department, which probes allegations of corruption and crime in the police, including the cases that led to the dismissal of several police major generals, which may prove too difficult to overcome.

In July 2014, Lamberger was named Tel Aviv district attorney. He has served in several districts around the country and also as deputy head of the Police Investigations Department. However, he reportedly maintains a closer, more amicable relationship with police.

The insiders

In the wake of Hirsch’s failed nomination, former police commissioner Assaf Hefetz reinforced the police position that the next chief had to come from within the organization, dismissing the idea that the department was in trouble as a media crusade.

“I don’t accept the idea that the police are corrupt,” he told the Walla news site. “It’s true, the organization has been bruised and battered, but the best thing is to appoint one of the major generals.”

If Erdan ultimately caves to that demand, he will likely choose from three potential candidates: Sau, the acting commissioner; Northern District Commander Zohar Dvir; or Southern District Police Commander Yoram Halevy.

Acting Police Commissioner Bentzi Sau during a ceremony at the police's national headquarters in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Acting Police Commissioner Bentzi Sau during a ceremony at the police’s national headquarters in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Of the three, Sau is the most veteran, having served for nearly 40 years on the force. However, his would be one of the more controversial appointments.

Since the Second Intifada, Sau’s professional progress has been hindered by a dark stain on his record — an unnecessarily violent and deadly response by his Border Police unit to a protest in the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, which resulted in the deaths of three Arab citizens in the early days of the intifada in 2000.

A public inquiry did not find Sau personally responsible for the deaths of the citizens, but noted, “This does not detract from the fact that these evident failures in his performance were substantial.”

The incident has already prevented him from receiving a promotion in 2007, and with an already tense situation brewing with Israel’s Arab population — seen in the recent uptick in stone-throwing and firebombing incidents in Jerusalem — it may prevent this one as well.

Major General Zohar Dvir, the head of the Israel Police's Northern District, at a press conference on July 6, 2014. (Gil Eliyahu/Flash90)
Major General Zohar Dvir, the head of the Israel Police’s Northern District, at a press conference on July 6, 2014. (Gil Eliyahu/Flash90)

With steely eyes and a strong jaw, Dvir is the Hollywood image of a tough but fair police commissioner — and his personal history only supports the impression.

Dvir, 50, made his bones as the commander of the Special Police Unit known in Hebrew by the acronym Yamam, a force similar to American SWAT teams. He served from 2001 to 2007, through the worst of the Second Intifada, making him the longest-serving commander in the unit’s 40-year history.

That Dvir is a Hollywood concept of an elite Israeli counter-terrorism fighter is no mere hyperbole. Many claim that Zohan Dvir, the main character in Adam Sandler’s 2008 film “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” was based off him, an idea which Dvir himself has never disputed.

Halevy, 52, has a record that includes stints in both the Yamam and the Border Police, making him something of a compromise between the other two police candidates.

In his three decades of service, Halevy has served in most elite units of the Israel Police and taken part in one of its most daring operations, the so-called “Mothers’ Bus attack,” in which terrorists took a civilian bus hostage and killed three passengers. Despite the deaths of some passengers, the operation was still considered remarkably successful, giving credibility and public recognition to the Yamam.

While Erdan and the police continue their game of chicken over who will be the next police commissioner, Israel’s national security lies in the balance.

Hopefully the public ministry’s promise of a quick replacement candidate will be kept.

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