Israel's Pegasus-gate: Police must reform for democracy's sake - comment

Something undemocratic and untoward happened inside the police with the Pegasus affair. A top-down reform plan needs to be the repsonse.

 Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai visits at a temporary roadblock on Highway 1 outside Jerusalem (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai visits at a temporary roadblock on Highway 1 outside Jerusalem
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Forget that the public’s faith in the police has been on a downward slide for years. Disregard an Israel Democracy Institute poll last week that showed only 29% of the country trusts the force. Nothing speaks more of a lack of confidence in the police than Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai saying an independent body needs to investigate Pegasus-gate.

“In light of the recent reports regarding the Israel Police operation of technological systems in the years before I took office, I requested that the public security minister order the establishment of an external and independent judicial review committee, headed by a judge, to examine the issue in all its aspects,” Shabtai said Monday. He said the goal of the inquiry is to restore public trust in the police and regulate its use of technology.

While commendable that Shabtai wants an independent body to investigate his organization, it also says something disturbing: The country’s top cop doesn’t trust his own organization to do an honest job.

That says it all.

As Yediot Aharonot’s Oded Shalom wrote on Tuesday, the Pegasus scandal is just the latest in a miserable year for the police.

 FORMER POLICE chief Roni Alsheikh, during whose term the police were said to have increased the use of NSO-style spyware. (credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP via GETTY IMAGES) FORMER POLICE chief Roni Alsheikh, during whose term the police were said to have increased the use of NSO-style spyware. (credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP via GETTY IMAGES)

These problems began with the stampede in Meron last Lag Ba’omer that ended with 45 people dead, ran through Arab riots in the mixed cities for which the police were woefully unprepared during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, continued with the police’s impotence in dealing with rampant murder on the Arab street, and included the recent resignation of the top Arab police officer mandated with leading the fight against crime in the Arab sector after footage emerged that two years ago he jumped over a dying man and fled the scene of a murder.

While each of those incidents is different, they point to serious problems inside the police. And the problems didn’t start this year; rather, they stretch back decades and indicate a problematic culture in the force that has its roots in an inability to attract the best and the brightest.

Maybe because of lack of status and prestige, maybe because of poor salaries, maybe because of the work itself, demobilized soldiers coming out of the IDF interested in making a career in the security field generally cast their eyes to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) or the Mossad, not the police – with the exception of the force’s crack YAMAM counterterrorism unit.

Any organization’s leadership is only as good as its rank and file, since in most organizations, the leadership comes up through the rank and file. What is telling about the police is that whenever the job of police commissioner opens up, there is always talk of bringing someone in from the outside, either from the Shin Bet or the IDF – and indeed this is sometimes the case.

FOR EXAMPLE, former police commissioner Roni Alsheikh, under whose watch the use of the Pegasus spyware reportedly flourished, was recruited from the Shin Bet. That there is a need to look outside the organization for its leadership says something about the quality of the manpower inside the organization.

If the Calcalist report is correct, and the scope and breadth of the electronic surveillance using Pegasus is as wide and deep as reported, then more than just a few police officers needed to have been involved in these operations. That none of them stood up and said “this is wrong” says something about the culture inside the force.

Now that the Pegasus scandal has erupted, there will be efforts to find who or what to blame. Everyone will point a finger at someone else. Current ministers will blame former ones, police commissioners will blame their predecessors, and officials in the State Attorney Office and Attorney-General’s Office will also be sought out for blame.

Some will even be more creative and blame the “occupation,” arguing that it was only a matter of time before harsh tactics used against Palestinians in the West Bank to prevent terrorist attacks were used inside the Green Line. These arguments are akin to Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman blaming the low rate of employment among haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men for the high cost of living.

But something undemocratic and untoward did happen, and it happened inside the police. Yet they are not the only ones blameworthy. Where were the gatekeepers: officials in the Justice Ministry, in the State Attorney Office and the Attorney-General’s Office? Where were the politicians charged with ensuring that the privacy of the country’s citizens is not violated?

There will be enough blame to go around. And in parceling it out to the police – the organization here well-deserved of the lion’s share of the blame – efforts must be made not to go overboard, similar to what happened in the US following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Floyd’s killing led – as with the Pegasus revelations – to justifiable courage and calls for fundamental reform. But it also led to calls to defund the police – efforts that ultimately weakened the police, leading to a spike in violent crime in many of America’s major cities.

The Floyd killing and its aftermath showed that the police in the US needed to be reformed, but not defunded or disbanded. The same dynamics are at work here.

The Pegasus scandal, if true, shows that the police need to be substantially reformed, and a culture that has taken root there needs to be uprooted. The trick will be in striking the right balance.

Because, let’s face it, the country does need a strong, empowered police force going forward. Empowered? Yes. But one willing and able to ride roughshod over civil liberties? Definitely not.