Entering Dep.-Cmdr. Asher Ben-Artzi's office in Jerusalem, one is struck by how atypical it is. Artifacts spanning thousands of years - including clay pitchers, an ossuary and a collection of wood pipes - cover every surface of the spacious room, creating an atmosphere more suited to that of a museum than of the National Police Headquarters. On the other hand, Ben-Artzi, an archeology buff, is not exactly a typical police officer.
As the head of Interpol, International Operations and Foreign Liaison, it is his job to process all requests made by foreign police forces to Israel; to make similar requests to police forces in foreign countries; and to supervise Israel Police representatives around the world.
Investigations he handles include tracking down most-wanted Nazi Alois Brunner - Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man - and the recent identification of Jewish bodies found in a mass grave in southern Germany.
Under the command of Asst.-Cmdr. Irit Bouton, Ben-Artzi also processes and supervises all Israel Police overseas investigations, such as the judicial inquiry in Austria into allegations against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the recent arrest and imminent extradition of underworld kingpin Ze'ev Rosenstein.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ben-Artzi, who began his career in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), speaks about some of the recent requests the Israel Police has received from various countries. On average, he says, his office processes some 7,000 incoming and outgoing requests for investigative assistance and for dozens of extraditions.
"Not all the requests involve the launching of investigations," Ben-Artzi says. "Many are from countries asking us to look into something or to see if we have any evidence that we can pass on to a foreign police force to help in its own investigation."
Take the Brunner case as an example, he says. "The Brazilian police believe he is in their country and asked us if we had a set of his fingerprints."
Another request - from the United States - was for information on the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking.
Why is the US still interested in a case whose perpetrators have been identified?
Ben-Artzi has a simple answer:
"Whenever a foreign national is wounded or murdered in a terror attack anywhere in the world, his country requests to be involved in the investigation or for the extradition of the perpetrators," he explains. "Countries continually request additional information, even in cases - like the Achille Lauro - that are seemingly closed."
Does Israel consider extraditing the terrorists?
"Of course not," Ben-Artzi says. "Countries make such requests so they can feel like they have a say in the investigation." It is their way, he says, of reserving the right to try the terrorists, in the event that Israel fails to do so.
THE WALLS of Ben-Artzi's office are lined with certificates, medals and pictures, one of which is a signed photo of former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. Another two that stand out are of Ben-Artzi with recently ousted Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos I.
Irineos was removed from his post in May, after he allegedly leased church property in Jerusalem's Old City to a right-wing Jewish group. He has been replaced by Theofilos III, although the Israeli government has yet officially to recognize either Irineos's dismissal or his successor's appointment. For Ben-Artzi, this story has personal significance: Among his other functions, Ben-Artzi is the mediator between rivaling groups within the Greek Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations.
Sounds peculiar that the police would serve as a liaison for internecine church matters? Ben-Artzi doesn't think so. The strife is on the verge of violence, he asserts, claiming that without police intervention, what is a tense situation could escalate into total mayhem. - Y.K.