A fatal drive-by on the Tel Aviv promenade in February, across the street from a chocolate festival jammed with suburbanites, may have been the low point for the Israel Police in 2014.
Yet the shooting was part of a series of low points and scandals in 2014 and late 2013, when police were in the spotlight again and again – for all the wrong reasons.
Always the also-rans, they found themselves at center stage largely due to an underworld bloodletting that saw around two dozen people killed in a series of car bombs and shootings across Israel, many of them in broad daylight.
The narrative in the press and the general feeling among the public was that the Israel Police are outmatched and outgunned, unable to stop the scourge of mob violence in Israel, and lacking the support of the justice system.
Things only got worse as the year progressed, as scandals rocked the upper echelons of the Israel Police, with three top officers with the rank of deputy commissioner resigning amid scandal.
This includes two district chiefs accused of sex crimes, and Menashe Arbiv, the head of LAHAV 433, often called “Israel’s FBI” – who was at the heart of a major corruption scandal.
In addition, there was the infamous “100 dispatch scandal” – the failure of police dispatchers to properly deal with a distress call placed by Gil-Ad Shaer on the night he and two other teens were abducted and murdered in the West Bank, giving the killers several hours’ head start. Add this to a series of cases in recent years where women who complained about domestic violence were later killed by their partners despite warning police and well-publicized complaints of police abuse. The list goes on and on.
In countries like the US, crime is a powerful domestic campaign issue, and in theory it makes sense that the atrocious year for police in the public eye and the great concern the Israeli public has towards crime and personal safety would make it figure prominently in the upcoming elections.
Alas, if past history is any indicator, crime will once again be all but forgotten in the election campaigns, which will in all likelihood be dominated by national security issues and the economy and social issues.
This is not merely because of the disregard the public has for the police, but also because criticizing their performance could potentially backfire for at least two of the leading parties.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud would be ill-advised to emphasize police failures and organized crime violence, because it happened on his watch. In fact, during the car bombs spree, a number of Israeli outlets – including one of the country’s leading websites – seemingly used the bloodshed as a way to criticize the performance of the Netanyahu-led government, with each bombing earning the red banner “Criminal Terrorism” before the headline. At a court hearing last year, I overheard one reporter from the outlet saying he was instructed, at the scene of the chocolate festival drive-by, to find a bystander who criticized the prime minister – ideally something along the lines of, “Where’s Netanyahu?” Netanyahu’s rival Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party are also in no position to criticize the prime minister by highlighting police failures – as for more than five years Yisrael Beytenu MK Yitzhak Aharonovitch has held the Public Security portfolio, the ministry in charge of the police.
During the recent wave of “lone wolf” terror attacks, Aharonovitch was a target of criticism along with Netanyahu, just as he was during the height of the recent mob wars. In both instances, Aharonovitch proposed expanding the use of administrative detention and other extra-judicial methods, seemingly pitching his own private Patriot Act – the picture of a man under fire, reaching for new weapons to win a fight he’s losing.
And who else is there? Is Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party platform going to tackle public security and the failure of the country’s police force? Maybe, but it could be problematic if they do it after they put former Israel Police chief Moshe Karadi on their list, as rumors in the press have speculated.
After all, Karadi’s term as chief was sullied by the “Pariente brothers affair,” a bombshell murder-for-hire case in which a police officer from the Southern District was suspected of being the trigger man in a mob hit carried out for an organized crime family based in the South. A senior commander, Yoram Cohen, was suspected of being an inside man working for the crime family, and despite the allegations was promoted to a top detective position by the then-commander of the district – Karadi. He was also chief of police during serial rapist Benny Sela’s escape from police custody in Tel Aviv in November 2006, after which he was on the run for two weeks.
In theory, crime could be an issue for the Arab sector – the segment of society most plagued by violent crime and drugs, and most in need of greater police work. Arabs make up around half of the murder victims each year – though they comprise only about 20 percent of the general population – and their towns and villages are riddled with illegal firearms, drugs and organized crime.
Nonetheless, most of them (other than Druse) don’t vote for Zionist parties, and those parties in turn do not see them as a constituency worth courting.
So where does that leave crime as a campaign issue? As many commentators have noted, this election is mainly about personalities, people are voting for or against Bibi or in favor of whichever party list grabs their interest this time around.
Arguably, in such a Seinfeld-esque “election about nothing,” it’s understandable that a domestic quality-of-life concern like crime would get short shrift. It’s not a vote-getter and overlooking it is in keeping with the Israeli tradition of the security situation dominating the agenda in every election.
This is unlikely to change anytime soon, no matter how much the police and crime dominated the Israeli news cycle in 2014.
Still, in recent months, the security agenda and crime have arguably merged together, as more and more lone-wolf attacks have been carried out in cities, and as police have been at the front lines of the state’s battle against a grassroots intifada of sorts typified by such unpredictable attacks and rioting across the Arab sector.
How these issues are handled is crucial to the security situation that has traditionally dominated Israeli politics, and the police are at the center of this struggle. Nonetheless, if tradition is any guide, police and the importance of providing greater public safety for all sectors of society will again take a back seat during these elections.
After the year they’ve had, maybe that’s a good thing for the Israel Police.
■ The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. He also writes and hosts “Reasonable Doubt,” an English-language crime news podcast on TLV1.FM. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com