Internal Security: Mario Puzo's got nothing on this

Now the Zeiler Commission inquiry, into connections between organized crime and those charged with combatting it, is back for a new installment.

By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
September 15, 2006 03:32
Moshe Karadi

Karadi 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Why should this fabulously convoluted dime-store novel deserve attention? Because tied up in the plot are mob-run casinos, protection rackets, dirty cops (and possibly even high-ranking police brass), and with a little bit of creativity, even the appointment of the country's top cop has been called into question, as the most far-reaching probe in the history of the Israel Police plows its way through a who's who of the law enforcement community. Unfortunately, in order to fully understand the stakes, one must get to grips with the case - or cases - involved. And these are notoriously difficult cases to follow, with enough twists to make Tom Clancy blanch. Still, at heart there are essentially a couple of main storylines, centering around the Perinians, a previously obscure crime family in the northern Negev. Mario Puzo couldn't have written it better: In 1999, a small, little-known crime family decides to settle scores with a local rival, and attempts to assassinate him. The local rival - in this case, a man named Pinchas Buhbout - survives the hit attempt, but is seriously injured. Buhbout is hospitalized, first in a nearby hospital and later in Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where he is expected to heal slowly while under the careful watch of law enforcement authorities. As he lies in bed, two men dressed as police officers enter his room. When they depart, Buhbout is dead, courtesy of a point-blank gunshot wound to his head. A little more than a year later, police are called to a break-in in the Beersheba suburb of Omer, where they apprehend two thieves. One of them - Tzahi Ben-Or - is a former elite police officer who has gone bad. When questioned by police about the incident, Ben-Or turns out to have a surprise up his sleeve. He discloses to them that he was one of the two people who murdered Buhbout. He says that due to his having become dissatisfied with the Perinians' treatment of him, he is ready to sing. But Ben-Or has another concern: He allegedly tells police that there is a very senior police officer in the district who is on the Perinian payroll. Although, according to later testimony, the officer remains unnamed, Ben-Or offers a key identifying characteristic - white hair. The evidence seems to point to Yoram Levy, a rising star within the Southern District. Levy, according to allegations, has been offering "protection" to the Perinians for years, turning a blind eye to their activities, and even warning them of police raids on their illegal gambling establishments. One of those gambling establishments was, in fact, given over by Perinian brothers Sharon and Oded to two of their foot soldiers - Amir Shamian (who was murdered in 2002) and a certain Ariel Ben-Or. Yes, even while Tzahi Ben-Or was still on the force, his brother was an Ashkelon-area criminal working for the Perinians. But two years of negotiation with District Attorney Yisca Leibowitz to turn Tzahi Ben-Or into a state witness fail, and he is eventually released on house arrest. He flees the country, and the next time police see him is when he is lying murdered in an apartment in Cancun, Mexico. In 2003, meanwhile, a new commander - Moshe Karadi - is appointed to lead the Southern District. Karadi starts the process of hiring a new commander - Yoram Levy - for the Central Investigative Unit (CIU), an elite team charged with cracking the district's toughest cases, among them the Buhbout murder. Even though Karadi has heard rumors that Levy, his former subordinate in the Lachish Subdistrict (the Perinians' home subdistrict, as well) is "mobbed-up," Karadi goes ahead with the appointment process anyway. In the course of the process, Karadi orders Levy to undergo a polygraph test, the results of which are inconclusive. Levy refuses to undergo a second such test. (According to testimony at the Zeiler Commission, when senior officers asked about the results of the polygraph, Karadi said they were "OK," and did not tell top police officials that they had actually been inconclusive. The Justice Department's Police Investigative Department (PID) allegedly told Karadi that they did not have enough evidence to open a case against Levy, yet could not say that he was not guilty of the allegations of his maintaining an inappropriate relationship with the Perinians. Karadi interpreted the polygraph and the PID answer as a clean bill of health for Levy. He completed the appointment, despite the fact that even Levy had never hidden his ties with the Perinians, sometimes arguing that they were merely social, and at other times, that he used them as sources.) A year later, Karadi himself is given a surprise appointment by then-Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi: Police Commissioner Inspector General, Israel's top cop. Yoram Levy is happily ensconced as head of the CIU, where the Buhbout murder case has languished uncracked for five years. But in February 2005, a Channel 2 investigative report claims that Karadi withheld the inconclusive polygraph results from senior officers also involved in approving the promotion. Following the report, Karadi decides to press disciplinary charges against Levy. At this point, the intrigue quickly untangles. Six months after being transferred from the Southern District CIU - where it sat for more than five years - the Buhbout murder case is finally solved by the Serious and International Crimes Unit (SICU). In late August, following a month-long manhunt, Perinian brothers Sharon and Oded are arrested, and two months later are indicted for the murder of Pinchas Buhbout. Finally, in December 2005, Hanegbi's successor, then-Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, and then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni decide to establish an inquiry committee to review police handling of the six-year investigation - to be headed by Judge Vardimos Zeiler. Testimony begins almost immediately, and the opening shots are fired by Asst.-Cmdr. Amir Gur, who led the CIU at the time of Buhbout's murder. During the opening session of the Zeiler Committee, Gur takes the stand and blasts other senior police officers. As the initial commander on the Buhbout investigation, Gur says, when he appointed Insp. Shalom Ayida to assist in the investigation, Ayida told him that he was afraid to participate because the Perinians were people he saw coming and going at his boss's [Levy's] home. Gur also accuses Karadi of using "poor judgment" when appointing Gur's successor, Levy, to head the CIU. Two days later, Levy returns fire in hostile and at times heated testimony, during which he tells the Zeiler Committee that his predecessor, Gur, and two other CIU officers "dragged their feet" and distorted the murder investigations to conceal their improper handling of the case. Levy says that one of the first things he did as CIU head was to transfer the Ben-Or file to Karadi. The file, Levy claims, had been found tucked in a small closet at CIU headquarters and had classified notes in it that were not signed or addressed, leading him to suspect there had been a mishandling of the case. Levy says there was no doubt that Gur and other officers in the CIU deliberately hid the file to prevent the investigation from proceeding. The testimony continues relatively uninterrupted for the next six months, as the PID investigation and District Attorney Leibowitz's failure to reach a deal with Ben-Or also are called into question. Even the person who administered the polygraph is called to take the stand. Karadi himself testified in May, defending his appointment of Levy to head the CIU, and saying that Levy had previously been considered for other sensitive, high-ranking positions. He added that of the three candidates for the CIU position, Levy was far and away the best qualified, and the only one willing to live in the district. Karadi did acknowledge, however, that Levy had disobeyed orders in continuing to meet with the Perinians after Karadi had personally instructed him to stop. He also attacked Gur's testimony, describing the senior officer as a source "whose credibility is very low." Later that month, the Commission distributed letters to Karadi, Jerusalem District Commander Ilan Franco, PID head Herzl Shviro, former Southern District commander and current Yisrael Beiteinu MK Yitzhak Aharonovich and Leibowitz warning them that the commission's conclusions were liable to be damaging to them. Such warnings are given before the conclusion of hearings, to allow recipients to meet with legal teams, submit additional paperwork or request an additional opportunity to testify. For Karadi, that additional opportunity begins now. BUT FAR be it from the Zeiler Commission to put a neat cap on the drama with the warning letters. In June, a long awaited "secret witness" (cinematically monikered "Mister X," and subsequently revealed to be Dep.-Cmdr. Efraim Erlich, head of the Traffic Division's Central Investigative Unit, and a close friend of Gur's) took the stand. In his testimony, Erlich broached a topic that may have the most far-reaching impact of any subplot in the tale. In Erlich's recently-declassified testimony, he recounted a story told to him by an unnamed source, claiming that Karadi's appointment as chief inspector was arranged over kebabs at an Ashdod restaurant as part of a deal between Hanegbi and Omri Sharon. Similar allegations had surfaced immediately following the Channel 2 report, but were pushed aside as unfounded, as had rumors that the Perinians had made at least one donation to the Likud Party to which both Sharon and Hanegbi belonged at the time. Following Erlich's testimony, the Zeiler Commission reportedly decided to extend its inquiry to cover the circumstances surrounding Hanegbi's appointment of Karadi.


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