Israeli law enforcement woefully lax, says study by Chief Economist

Israel prosecutes far fewer criminals and has weaker contract enforcement than other developed nations. ‘We’re giving a green light to criminals,’ warns one economist

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo: Israeli police officers in Bet Shemesh, on March 17, 2015. (Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)
Illustrative photo: Israeli police officers in Bet Shemesh, on March 17, 2015. (Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)

Only one in five suspected criminals is prosecuted in Israel compared to three in five in other developed countries, according to a study published this week by the department of the Chief Economist in the Ministry of Finance. In addition, the study found, Israel has weak enforcement of contracts when measured against five comparison countries: Belgium, France, South Korea, New Zealand, and the UK.

The February 4 study is part of an ongoing series of reports by the Chief Economist’s department assessing the performance of Israel’s public sector, in areas ranging from education to public health, infrastructure, income distribution, and law and order. The new study, which was devoted to the topic of law and order, found that Israel scores high on measures of personal safety but lags far behind the average of the comparison countries when it comes to prosecuting suspected criminals, both violent and non-violent, as well as enforcing contracts.

The study says that the ratio of prosecutions to arrests, already low compared to other developed countries, dropped by 30 percent between 2006-2015.

According to the study’s authors, Israel’s enforcement of contracts is weak. The authors gave Israel a score of 5.98 out of 8 compared to 7.35 out of 8 for the comparison countries. In addition, the study gave Israel a score of 4.3 out of 7 (with 7 being the top score) when it comes to “inappropriate outside influences” on the decisions of the justice system, compared to 4.9 out of 7 in the comparison countries.

The authors gave Israel a score of 3.9 out of 7 when it comes to the ethics and susceptibility to corruption of judges and prosecutors, compared to 4.8 in the comparison countries. According to the study, corruption in Israel’s justice system and in the Israeli public sector as a whole has gotten worse over the last decade.

In terms of personal safety, Israel scored above the comparison countries across all subcategories, which included violent robberies, non-violent theft, break-ins, auto theft, sexual violence, murder, traffic deaths, and organized crime violence. The level of violent crime in Israel is lower than the average of the comparison countries and declined by 40 percent between 2006-2015, according to the report. The study’s authors measured the level of violent crime and theft using the number of reports to police over this time period. While reports for other types of crime declined, the number of reports of sexual violence remained steady.

Israeli streets are relatively safe, according to the Chief Economist report. Tel Aviv’s Shenkin Street. (Photo credit: Ministry of Tourism)

The comparison countries were chosen, the study explained, because they are statistically similar to Israel in terms of GDP per capita and Gini coefficient. Israel’s GDP per capita is $35,700 while that of Belgium is $40,400, France’s is $42,400, South Korea’s is $27,200, New Zealand’s is $37,800 and the UK’s is $43,900. Israel is the most unequal of the six countries, with a Gini coefficient of 0.36 while Belgium’s is 0.26, France’s is 0.30, South Korea’s is 0.31, New Zealand’s is 0.33, and the UK’s is 0.33.

Why is law enforcement in Israel so weak?

Major General (ret.) and former Labor MK Moshe Mizrachi, who as head of criminal investigations for the Israeli police in the 1990s oversaw several high-profile investigations, including against alleged Russian mafia boss Gregory Lerner as well as then MK Avigdor Liberman, told The Times of Israel one of the reasons there are so few prosecutions in Israel is that the courts are not able to keep pace.

“I find the statistic for the low number of prosecutions vis-a-vis arrests particularly disturbing,” he said. “Compared to other countries, we are far behind. Part of this is due to the fact that the production line of police/prosecutors/courts has been bottlenecked for years.”

Mizrachi also questioned whether the amount of violent crime and theft has actually declined in Israel over the past decade or whether people have simply given up on reporting such incidents to police.

Moshe Mizrachi (Facebook screenshot)

“Can the decline in reported crime be used to measure personal security? I doubt it. Sometimes people don’t report crimes because they have little faith in the police’s ability to redress the situation.”

Mizrachi said the courts cannot deal with a large number of indictments and therefore have to prioritize. Many criminal cases with solid evidence are closed on the pretext that there is a “lack of interest to the public” while a large percentage of indictments, he said, end in plea bargains due to the courts’ heavy caseloads.

“The production line is weak and cannot handle the amount of crime that is out there. The fact that the number of crimes being reported has gone down should have led to higher quality police work and reduced the pressure on the courts. The fact that this did not happen points to an even worse problem. The high number of arrests suggests the difficulty the police have in carrying out investigations without using the tool of arrests. The police arrest people too easily to make up for a lack of real investigative ability. Anyone familiar with how lengthy both criminal and civilian court proceedings are can understand the implications for the entire system.”

Mizrachi says the solution is that more personnel and resources must be allocated to the justice system.

“If the study had measured the number of police, prosecutors, and judges in Israel compared to other countries, it might explain Israel’s poor performance. My intuition and knowledge of the Israeli police suggest that we fall woefully far behind other countries in that respect.”

Why is it important for governments to enforce contracts?

Ronen Bar-El, a professor of Economics at the Open University told The Times of Israel that the study’s other major finding, that contract enforcement in Israel is relatively weak, is disturbing as well.

Ronen Bar-el (Facebook)

“The basis for any market economy is the rule of law, without it you can’t have functioning markets. If a society doesn’t enforce property rights, there is no incentive to produce or engage in commerce.”

For instance, said Bar-El, if rental contracts are not enforced, landlords will not out rent apartments. If contracts to suppliers are not enforced, those suppliers will go out of business. Even worse, he said, when the state does not enforce contracts, citizens turn to crime lords or mafia bosses to collect debts and adjudicate their disputes.

For this reason, he said “collection companies” run by mafia bosses flourished in Israel in the 1990s, before the government strengthened its debt collection system.

“A bunch of thugs would come to your house and ask you to pay your debt. That was how they collected money when the government was too weak to do so.”

Bar-El said that the low rate of criminal prosecutions is a green light for criminals to do business in Israel.

“If you’re a criminal, you’re thinking, ‘what are the chances that I’ll get caught, and even if I get caught, what are the chances I’ll be indicted and what is the chance that an indictment will actually lead to a conviction?’”

Indeed, in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Joseph Campbell, a former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said that Israel has become a magnet for transnational organized crime due to “corruption and lax law enforcement.”

To the extent that organized crime in Israel remains unchecked, Campbell said, the revenue may be used to perpetrate even darker crimes. “When we speak of transnational organized crime we are speaking of money going to kleptocratic regimes, human trafficking, arms trafficking, and terror financing. Also, when you have this unregulated industry generating a lot of money, it leads to public corruption. The availability of cash attracts a lot of bad actors and this eats away at good governance.”

While Campbell believes the solution to the problem consists of better regulation and reforms, Bar-El, echoing Mizrachi, suggests that the solution to the problem is for legislators to allocate funds to hire more police and more judges.

“Why aren’t politicians spending more money on the justice system?” Bar-El asked rhetorically.

“I think their cost-benefit analysis is deficient. They’re not thinking that in the long term improving the justice system will help Israel’s economy.”

He added, “The best case scenario is that Israel’s legislators are not thinking ahead. The worst case scenario is that they are thinking ahead, and more police and better courts is not something they believe to be in their interest.”

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