Dirt and squabbles at the top of a tiny country

If there was a measure that compared a place's contribution to the noise of the world to its size, Israel would be somewhere close to the top .

Over the years we've seen claims that Israel leads in the number of foreign correspondents per capita, the media space and time devoted to it, as well as the incidence of its condemnations by various bodies of the United Nations and other organizations that claim international status.

One can quarrel about the size and population of Israel, given the amorphous status of the West Bank. However, the entire thing is about the size and population of a small American state, i.e., Massachusetts or New Jersey.

The Israel where some three quarters of the people live is substantially smaller. They fit in an oddly shaped portion from Beer Sheva over to Ashkelon, north along the coast to Nahariya and 15 or so miles inland , with a bulge from the center about 40 east to Jerusalem. The comparison of this area with the United States brings us somewhere between Delaware and Connecticut.

Another look at the population and land area makes this Israel look like one of the larger US metropolitan areas, perhaps Philadelphia or Houston, but not in the league of Los Angeles.

Wags say that Israel isn't a country, but a city disguised as a country, or calling itself a country.

Actually, the comparison with the US is not appropriate, except perhaps for the majority of the people who are likely to read these notes.

Europe is a more appropriate comparison, given the source of Israel's founding and the political character that has developed. Americans were a tiny fraction of the people who got this place started and created its institutions. Most came from Eastern and Central Europe, and built on institutions acquired from the British during the Mandate, with legal remnants from the Ottomans.

The result is a country ruled by a government responsible to parliament, with a largely symbolic president, and most of the power for getting things done in national government ministries and their professional cadres of civil servants.

Then there is the IDF. Another set of wags say that Israel is not a country with an army, but an army with a country.

That's more of an exaggeration than the comment that Israel is a city disguised as a country. The IDF and other security forces take a higher percentage of the national resources than in any other western democracy, about half again as much as in the second ranked US. However, Israel's allocation of its resources to defense has declined over recent decades. Moreover, the security services have operated under the direction of elected officials, with retired generals  prominent at the higher levels of national politics.

What is essentially European, rather than American about Israel is the centralization of authority. 

This may have as much to do with the small size of the country (or the even smaller size of where most of the people live) as its history. School curricula, policing, and even the major decisions about physical planning and whether a local street can be two-way or one-way are done by national rather than local bodies. Much of what the municipalities do is to administer national laws and regulations.

It's also a country where the personalities at the tops of the professional cadres get considerable media attention, with changes at the tops of certain bodies worthy of a day's headlines.

Chief among the stars is the head of the IDF, with distant second spots occupied by a cluster that includes the heads of the security and intelligence services Mossad and Shin Bet, the head of the  national police, and the professionals at the heads of the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry.

Not all runs smoothly at the summit of this highly centralized little country (or large city).

Current headlines are featuring a controversial selection of the next police chief. It comes after a rocky year at the senior levels of the national police, with a number of senior officers dismissed or retiring under threat of dismissal, and one suicide. Most cases have been associated with improper behavior involving female subordinates, with the suicide associated with a scandal involving a prominent rabbi, and allegations about money and the transfer of sensitive information about police investigations, with the rabbi being a conduit between a prominent police officer and Israel's underworld.  

The Minister of Internal Security has the responsibility of proposing the replacement for the police chief, who seems to have been clean but came to the end of his term. After a long period of screening and deliberation the Minister decided to select someone from outside the police.

House cleaning is the theme, and the choice is of a former general, not too old, with signs of charisma and a reputation of having high morals, but also with a blip on his military record that permits some quarrels as to his qualifications.

The selection is not going down well in the top ranks of the police, and among former ranking cops. We hear that the nominee has never made an arrest, doesn't know where the skeletons are buried, can't possibly understand the culture of the police, and won't have the support of ranking officers.

Senior officers have indicated their intention to resign in protest, ,most likely due to perceived limitations on their own chances to climb higher. A group of former police chiefs gathered, produced a shrill condemnation of the appointment, and promised to fight it in public and through the governmental procedures where it will be considered.

It looks like bureaucrats and their alumni guarding the organizational turf against interlopers. 

We can expect some time of bureaucratic and political unrest, with verbal brickbats slung, and some efforts to bring calm among present and retired cops, politicians, senior bureaucrats, media commentators, and academics thought to be experts on such things.

There are more steps before the appointment is finalized, so the commotion  will be with us for a while.

Opponents may have enough weight with the politicians and other personnel having to vote on the matter to scuttle what has been proposed.

Scholars who study bureaucratic politics should be warming up their laptops.

The cartoonist for Ha'aretz showed the candidate on a bucking bull, wearing a police cap, with the Minister of Internal Security and the Prime Minister looking on with wonder or discomfort.

We're on the verge of the holidays. They have already begun, insofar as we're only three weeks before Rosh Hashanah. They'll continue to the end of Succoth. It'll probably be Sunday, October 11th before we're ready to begin serious work, leaving aside any serious provocations that bring key people back from vacation.

By then the police may be accommodating the new chief, and the ladies of the force may feel as safe as they want to be when invited to the boss's offices, riding the elevator at headquarters, and doing duty in the squad cars.

And the rest of us may feel better served.

Or not.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144
[email protected]