“I don’t know to this day whether I quit or was fired,” said Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era secretary of defense, decades after President Lyndon Johnson replaced him in 1968.
When he exits his office at the foothills of Mt. Scopus for the last time on December 3, Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh will also be able to say he neither quit nor was he fired, though the whole country witnessed his effective dismissal on September 13, when Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in a live broadcast he decided not to grant Alsheikh a fourth year as No. 1 Cop.
Alsheikh joins a prestigious list of high-profile dismissals. However, unlike McNamara, whose proposal to retreat from Vietnam irked LBJ, and unlike John Kennedy’s CIA director Allen Dulles, who was fired following the Bay of Pigs debacle, or the elder Bush’s treasurer Paul O’Neil, who was axed in the wake of a recession – Alsheikh was involved in no major fiasco
and had no substantive policy disputes with his superiors.
In fact, while stating his decision to replace Alsheikh, Erdan refused to explain the move other than to claim that both men had “divergent approaches on various issues, some of them substantial.”
Israel Police chiefs, like IDF chiefs of staff, are appointed for three-year terms that are usually extended to a fourth year. A failure to extend the term is perceived as a dismissal, as happened last decade when Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz failed to extend Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon’s term in the wake of his opposition to the planned retreat from Gaza.
For the 55-year-old Alsheikh and the 33,000 cops he commands, his premature departure is an improbable, accomplished, and stormy tenure’s fitting aftermath.
ISRAEL POLICE had reached the lowest moral nadir when the current government took the drastic measure of imposing on it a leader who had never been a cop.
A slew of sexual misconduct scandals generated a series of probes, firings, and resignations that collectively exposed a culture of abuse, whereby senior policemen took advantage of female subordinates’ weak social background and lack of professional alternatives.
Seven of Israel Police’s 15 inspectors – the equivalents of the IDF’s major-generals – came to be suspected of sexual misconduct, including deputy commissioner Nissim Mor, who was later convicted of sexual harassment and breach of trust.
With Cop No. 2 – a married father of four – under house arrest at the time and admitting multiple relationships with subordinate police-women, and with the police commanders of Jerusalem, the coastal plain, and the West Bank having all abruptly resigned – it was obvious that something is rotten in the Israel Police, and that the surgery it begged had better be performed by an external surgeon.
Initially, this search led to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsh, but that choice was scuttled by allegations – later refuted – of wrongdoings in his civilian work as a defense contractor.
Deprived of his first external candidate, Minister Erdan proceeded from the IDF to the secret services. That is how he ended up with Alsheikh, the Shin Bet’s deputy director at the time.
An observant father of seven, the husky Alsheikh became a brilliant Shin Bet officer after distinguished combat service in Lebanon as a paratroops officer.
Having started off as a junior investigator in the Ramallah district, Alsheikh’s 26-year career as a spook made him widely appreciated as a charismatic commander and able administrator. His education, including a summa cum laude degree in political science from Tel Aviv University, and a senior management degree from the Wharton School in business, indicated he is also a thorough learner.
The less consensual lines in the mustachioed Alsheikh’s CV, a period of study in the nationalist Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, and several years’ residency in the West Bank settlement Kochav Hashahar before moving to well-to-do Givat Shmuel outside Ramat Gan – were assets from Erdan’s viewpoint.
Even so, unpredicted events soon placed Alsheikh and his superiors on the opposite sides of a legal drama, which he did not cause, but his bosses apparently expected him to shape.
POLICE investigators’ questionings since January 2017 of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concerning multiple corruption allegations began just over a year since Alsheikh assumed office.
As the allegations developed and the probes lagged, many suspected the police was dragging its feet in an effort to help prevent Netanyahu’s indictment.
This impression was dispelled last February, when Israel Police publicly recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust, having allegedly received 1 million shekels’ worth of gifts from businessman Arnon Milchan, and also offered Yedioth Ahronoth
publisher Arnon Mozes help in weakening competitor Yisrael Hayom
in return for favorable coverage.
In the absence of further elaboration on Erdan’s part, it is widely assumed that his “differences of opinion and divergent approaches on various issues” with Alsheikh were, one way or another, about Netanyahu’s situation.
Seen this way, Alsheikh’s dismissal is analogous to Richard Nixon’s order to Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate scandal’s special prosecutor, after he issued a subpoena demanding Nixon hand in tapes of his conversations with his aides.
Much closer to home, Alsheikh’s fate resembles that of one of his predecessors, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Herzl Shafir.
Now 87, the former head of the IDF’s Southern Command had fought in all of Israel’s wars and also been a candidate for Chief of General Staff when he was appointed Commissioner of Israel Police in 1980.
As a former head of the IDF’s Personnel Division, Shafir modernized a managerially antiquated Israel Police, most notably by computerizing its manpower operations.
However, a year after donning the blue uniform he was fired by Police Minister Yosef Burg, who accused the commissioner of false reporting, a charge few believed, assuming instead Shafir lost his job because he probed corruption allegations involving Burg's National Religious Party, and also the minister himself.
Whatever its causes, Shafir’s brief tenure suggested that heading Israel Police demands a skill set outsiders cannot possess.
That is what five former commissioners argued when they collectively protested Brig-Gen Hirsh’s short-lived nomination three years ago. When Alsheikh came along they could not repeat that protest, partly because of his more illustrious CV, and partly because experience in the Shin Bet is in some respects relevant for leadership in Israel Police.
In any event, now that Alsheikh’s stint is over, police brass actually praise his performance.
“HE DID wonderful things to upgrade police,” said on Israel Radio Assaf Hefetz, who headed the Israel Police in the 1990s, referring to Alsheikh’s recruitment of more than 1,000 cops to fill unmanned positions as well as to “activities on which I can’t elaborate.”
Alsheikh’s firm backing of police investigators as they probed the prime minister and his wife, and his brave protest on TV that “someone” hired private detectives to snoop around them, earned him further kudos among the cops.
Beyond that political furnace, Alsheikh clearly had some remarkable achievements.
Having diagnosed Israel Police as overly centralized, he empowered the local police station to set its own priorities, requiring each station to choose, based on its precinct’s problems, what to focus on, and then to set quantifiable goals for reducing the incidence of what it prioritized.
At the same time, the intelligence professional had Israel Police hone in on specific problems through special task forces, apprehending in this way, for instance, a record 135 car-theft gangs throughout the country last year alone.
Burglaries were down last year 8.3% compared with the previous year, and 50% compared with their rate a decade earlier.
Similarly, organized crime was pressured with visible results, like the arrests of Michael Mor, who headed a northern crime family, and of Niv Zaguri, who ran a crime family in Beersheba. The latter’s arrest in China reflected broader cooperation with foreign police forces.
The heads of a third crime family, headed by Ofir and Amos Lavie, were arrested after their organization was infiltrated by an undercover agent who was later murdered.
Seen this way, Alsheikh’s imposition on Israel Police was far more successful than other such administrative parachutes, like Lt-Gen (res) Haim Laskov (1919-1982), a war hero and former chief of General Staff who resigned in 1970 as director of the Port Authority, following repeated confrontations with the unions below him and the politicians above him.
Then again, Alsheikh made some grave mistakes that clearly contributed to his premature departure.
THE FIRST of these was his failure, immediately after assuming office, to appear as the scandalized Israel Police’s moral stable cleaner.
Opportunity to create such an image emerged when Alsheikh was required to take a decision concerning the future of Inspector Roni Rittman, who headed Lahav 433, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI, and was suspected of a sexual harassment incident four years before Alsheikh’s arrival.
Alsheikh’s conclusion from the information he collected was that Rittman was innocent. Having valued Rittman greatly as a professional, he therefore refused to remove him. Alsheikh’s decision was received well by police brass, who now saw in him a defending superior, who is prepared to take risks for subordinates even in defiance of public expectations.
It all worked well for Alsheikh until a High Court of Justice ruling in November 2017 told him to reconsider his decision. Rittman’s consequent resignation underscored Alsheikh’s failure to assess the full scope of the dilemma he had faced. More deeply, it underscored a lifelong spook’s misunderstanding of the public limelight.
It’s easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight, but still, considering the context of his unusual appointment, Alsheikh’s imperative upon assuming his position was to remove any senior cop involved in sexual misconduct allegations, no matter how personally unfair or professionally costly such a departure could be.
The public imperative was to create the impression that the Israel Police’s external surgeon is determined to operate, with or without anesthesia.
The same public insensitivity surfaced when Alsheikh quipped that it’s “natural” for cops to be suspicious of Ethiopians, and even more ominously in January 2017 in Um al-Hiran, a Bedouin shanty town where a driver was shot dead during unrest, as police arrived to demolish illegally built houses.
Alsheikh’s hasty report that morning to Minister Erdan, and to the media, that the driver was a terrorist in the middle of a ramming attack, later proved false, and created both an embarrassment and a headache to the commissioner’s boss.
While this incident does not outweigh Alsheikh’s accomplishments, and surely does not constitute reason for his dismissal, it did provide ammunition to the superiors, who apparently wanted to shed Alsheikh for entirely different reasons.
It also explains why Erdan’s candidates for Alsheikh’s succession – Jerusalem District Commander Yoram Halevi, Tel Aviv District Commander David Bitan, and former Tel Aviv District commander Moshe Edri – are all professional cops.
Erdan didn’t say this, but he might as well have said that the common denominator among the three is that they are less charismatic and less unorthodox, but also less unpredictable, less argumentative, and less of a thorn in the side than Roni Alsheikh has been for Gilad Erdan.
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