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The National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem was bustling with activity this week, as the committee established to investigate the handling of the Perinian investigation, and dozens of alleged mishaps that accompanied the related Pinhas Buhbut and Tzahi Ben Or murder cases, met for its first session.
Headed by former District Court Judge Vardi Zeiler, the committee has yet to officially announce whom it will subpoena in the coming weeks, but the main cast of characters includes half of the top police brass and at least two dozen mid-level-to-senior officers in districts throughout the country. Among these are Jerusalem Police chief Cmdr. Ilan Franco, head of police Investigations Cmdr. Dudi Cohen and head of police operations at the Internal Security Ministry, Cmdr. Yohanan Danino. All pale in comparison, however, to Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi, who, for a good portion of the period under investigation, was chief of police in the South.
Karadi, sources say, will almost certainly be asked by the committee to explain a dubious promotion he made, in addition to his overall handling of the case.
But being summoned by the committee is not the Police's main worry. Of greater concern is what it fears the committee has become: a public "clothesline" for cops to air out the force's dirty laundry.
Since the Or Commission was established to probe the events of October 2000 and the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in the North, the police has not had to face an inquiry commission appointed by politicians. In contrast to the Or Commission, however, the Zeiler Committee has been granted the authority to review all methods and techniques used by police in all its investigations.
The consequences, senior officers warned this week, could be severe. That specific cops are liable to be blamed for this or that mishap is beside the point. The real issue at stake is that the entire police force might need to undergo a thorough overhaul, to clean itself of corrupt elements and to restore its already weak public image.
THE ZEILER Committee met for the first time on Sunday. During the session, Asst.-Cmdr. Amir Gur, former head of the Southern District's Central Investigative Unit (CIU), took the stand and began firing in every possible direction. Karadi, he said, used "poor judgment" when appointing Gur's successor Yoram Levy to head the CIU; former State Attorney and current Supreme Court Justice Edna Arbel, he assessed, was "wrong" in the way she negotiated a state's witness deal with Ben Or, who was willing to testify against the Perinians; and Franco and former head of Police Investigations Cmdr. Moshe Mizrahi, he charged, "ignored" his warnings that "police elements were sabotaging the investigation."
On Wednesday, Levy took the stand and fired back, accusing Gur of smuggling Ben Or out of the country to cover up for his mishandling of the Buhbot murder case. In other words, Levy's story was almost exactly opposite to Gur's. Levy claimed he never reviewed the Buhbot case and that he had never met Ben Or. One of the first things he said he did when becoming head of the CIU in 2003 was to transfer the Ben Or file out of CIU headquarters.
In private conversations this week, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra - who, together with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, established the Committee - expressed satisfaction with the way things were going. Half-jokingly and half-seriously, Ezra said that if senior officers were using the Committee to bash each other, he had achieved his goal.
WHAT IS it about this murder case that makes it different from others that have taken a long time to solve?
The story begins in 1999, when known Ashkelon-based underworld figure Pinhas Buhbot was shot to death as he lay in a Tel Hashomer hospital bed recuperating from a previous attempt on his life. Fast forward to this August, when the police announced that Tzahi Ben Or, a former Jerusalem policeman, was the assassin who killed Buhbot, and that he had been hired by Oded and Sharon Perinian - known crime suspects from the village of Hodaya near Ashkelon. Ben Or was found murdered in 2004 in Cancun, Mexico, and the Perinians were indicted in October for Buhbot's murder.
To sum up: A cop is hired by criminals to kill a criminal and then flees the country and gets killed. Now is where it gets complicated.
At the time of Buhbot's murder, Gur was the head of the CIU in the South. Yoram Levy was his subordinate and served as the head of CIU investigations. Gur claims that Levy sabotaged the investigation due to his close and inappropriate relationship with the Perinians, who - Gur claimed - would even visit Levy at his home.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Levy not only denied these allegations, but accused Gur of helping Ben Or to escape the country in order to cover up for his own mishandling of the case.
Gur contended that he negotiated a state's witness deal with Ben Or which fell through when state attorney at the time Arbel insisted on Ben Or's serving seven years in prison (while Ben Or insisted on three). As a result, Gur claimed, Ben Or fled the country - which is why, he said, it took the police another three years to finally arrest the Perinians.
The State Attorney's Office, then, is also being investigated by the Committee.
The Committee will also examine why Levy was appointed to head the CIU during the time the murder investigation was still in process - despite Gur's objections and despite the fact that Levy failed a polygraph test and refused to take a second one.
This is where Karadi - who made the Levy appointment - comes under the Committee's microscope.
Because publication bans on certain aspects of the case are still in effect, it will take a while before all of the pieces of this police puzzle fall into place. But senior officers said this week that there is one thing of which they are certain: The Israel Police will look very different after the Committee submits its findings in June, 2006.