Israel Pulse

Can the Knesset rein in the Israel Police?

Article Summary
A parliamentary committee of inquiry is necessary to get to the bottom of the affair involving Gal Hirsch, whose appointment to be police commissioner was scuttled by news of a police investigation into his activities, and the apparent practice of the police to compile incriminating intelligence on Israeli politicians and others.

“I really hope that there’s nothing here. I don’t know what happened, but I do know one thing: We must investigate it,” said Knesset member Yoav Kisch of Likud when the Knesset’s Interior Committee, which he heads, voted to create a parliamentary committee of inquiry to investigate the Gal Hirsch affair.

Brig. Gen. Hirsch resigned from the military after the Second Lebanon War (2006). He then went on to establish his own security consulting firm and also headed the Israel Leadership Institute. He was nominated to be police commissioner on Aug. 25, 2015, but his appointment was officially withdrawn almost a month later, on Sept. 23, because of a criminal investigation into his affairs.

Twenty-four hours after Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced Hirsch’s appointment, Erdan had learned that Hirsh was the target of a police investigation, including on the suspicion that he and his company had paid bribes to a Georgian minister to advance various arms deals. The investigation is still open three years after the episode made headlines, with recent reports claiming that it is about to be concluded.

The Hirsch case took an interesting turn on Aug. 5, when recordings were released allegedly proving that Assistant Commissioner Manny Yitzhaki, head of the Department of Police Investigations, had been taking steps to push an investigation of Hirsch forward after Hirsch was appointed. The question on everybody’s mind three years ago was, if allegedly damaging intelligence collected against Hirsch was already in the system, why did the police open an investigation into Hirsch only after he became the nominee for police commissioner? Everyone now realizes that this should have been recognized as a serious warning signal. Is there any truth to accusations against the police that they are blocking appointments and abusing intelligence? Why are these charges only now being thoroughly investigated?

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Kisch did the right thing in convincing his committee to create a parliamentary committee of inquiry, even though the final decision requires the approval of the full Knesset. It is a bold move given that there could be a potential police investigation hovering over him and any other politician as well. This, at least, is what one would conclude based on the “Yitzhaki document,” created in 2014 on the order of the same Manny Yitzhaki above and containing information about numerous Knesset members serving at that time. The document's existence was first revealed to the public by Channel 10 News in 2016. It has since been learned that incriminating evidence had been collected on some 40 Knesset members, including Erdan.

According to the document, suspicions surrounding these Knesset members involve ethics violations, bribery and fraud. Yet despite the seriousness of the information, which is based on intelligence that had reached the police, most of the allegations have never been investigated and will likely never be investigated. A political and media firestorm erupted when the Yitzhaki document was released. It was argued that the material had been collected to prevent politicians from involving themselves in police affairs, and that in this way the police were acting like the mafia. Various Knesset members demanded an investigation, and the issue was raised by a Knesset committee. The police responded that they had been acting in good faith, and at that point the public debate more or less ended.

There are several dozen current Knesset members, including ministers from all the parties, on whom the police have “intelligence” that could be pulled out at some time or another and turned into a criminal investigation within a few hours. That is why Kisch’s decision was a bold move, even if it has been called a populist and politically motivated attempt to weaken the police investigation into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is no way of knowing whether the police have intelligence on Kisch, and it stands to reason that he has enemies, as any politician would.

No one — not even those members of Kisch's committee who opposed the creation of a parliamentary committee of inquiry — has challenged the idea of thoroughly investigating the withdrawal of Hirsch’s appointment and the way the investigation of him has been dragged out. The only debate is over how to do it.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben Reuven of the Zionist Camp voted against creating a committee, but has called on the police and the State Attorney’s Office to end their investigation of Gal Hirsch. He has argued that a parliamentary committee of inquiry would become a political committee and would find it difficult to come up with conclusions for implementation. The problem, however, is that no one has thrown down the gauntlet until now. The issue has never been subject to an appropriate investigation, and “calls” to the police to complete the investigation will not help here.

“Now, when the issue is in the headlines again, I am sure that the police will not finish their investigation,” one Knesset member from the governing coalition told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They can, in fact, leave the case open for years. They can always claim that it is because of the complexity of the investigation, which is a terrible thing.”

When taking a closer look at the series of events in the Hirsch affair — from the rushed opening of the investigation to everything that is now known about the Yitzhaki document — what emerges is a terrifying picture of the uninhibited and unrestrained manner in which the police can operate without being held to account for their actions. That is why the decision by the Interior Committee to call on the Knesset to establish a committee of inquiry is important and necessary. Once established, such a committee would have the power to call witnesses and eventually submit a report.

It is possible that the police as an institution and high-ranking police officers who acted in an unseemly manner will do everything to prove that their actions were legal. It is quite possible that they will hide behind top secret material and claim good faith. They may even succeed. Nevertheless, it is important for the police to know that a committee of inquiry is scrutinizing their actions and that witnesses will be called to answer open questions about the Yitzhaki document and the withdrawal of Hirsch’s appointment.

Kisch called the attempt to thwart the appointment of a police commissioner a “threat to democracy.” He was not exaggerating, especially given that it is now the eve of the decision on who will replace the outgoing commissioner, Roni Alsheikh. With the infighting at the highest echelons of the police, there is an overwhelming feeling that nothing has changed. It was reported on Sept. 9 that a polygraph test given to Deputy Commissioner Yoram Halevi, a candidate for commissioner (and Netanyahu's preferred choice), identified a problem with his behavior. That information appears to have been revealed to prevent his appointment, so who leaked the results of the test, which took place several weeks ago? So far, that question has gone unanswered.

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Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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