How Bibi’s trial impacts appointment options for police, Mossad, Shin Bet

The three major appointments he has the most direct control over in the coming year are the heads of the police, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu with members of his legal team at the beginning of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court in May. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu with members of his legal team at the beginning of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court in May.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
One question that technically is disconnected from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bribery trial, but that is of paramount importance to the nation is if and how the case is impacting his law enforcement and national security appointments.
The three major appointments he has the most direct control over in the coming year are the heads of the police, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad.
Top positions in IDF intelligence may also get switched, but even as the prime minister has a say in such appointments, given that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is defense minister, Netanyahu will have less sway there.
Police chief may come up first. Since December 2018, Moti Cohen has served as “temporary” chief, pending the appointment of a permanent commissioner.
Officially, there are not supposed to be major appointments before November, after the coalition’s first six months of the coronavirus emergency.
But whether a replacement is made in November or in August, as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana has promised, the selection has become viewed as directly related to Netanyahu’s trial and to confronting protesters against the prime minister.
This past week, Ohana basically told Cohen that the minister would dictate policy to the police about what kinds of protests would be allowed and what kinds would be oppressed.
The minister’s statement about encouraging the police “to challenge the High Court of Justice precedent” on permitting protests near the residences of public officials (read: trying to block protests against Netanyahu) recalls a 2019 statement. Just after being appointed justice minister, Ohana said he did not view himself as bound by all court rulings.
Although within hours and facing an avalanche of criticism, he walked back the statement, it seems now that the statement was in fact his true position. Given his current permanent ministerial appointment, it now appears he is trying to act on it in major ways.
How far will he and Netanyahu go with a future police chief who is selected based on loyalty?
Past experience suggests pretty far.
One of the reasons Netanyahu reportedly appointed Roni Alsheich as police chief for 2015-2018 was he was expected to put probes of Netanyahu and other public officials on the back burner.
Alsheich came from the Shin Bet and was viewed as caring far more about the police’s role in combating terror and organized crime than “sideshow” white-collar criminal issues like bribery.
In fact, in early stages, Alsheich fulfilled this expectation. He slow-walked Sara Netanyahu’s case and sent out bizarre public statements that were clearly bent on underplaying any criminal suspicions directed at her.
However, by February 2018, Alsheich had decided he could not veto the overwhelming view of the police team investigating Netanyahu and endorsed its recommendation to charge the prime minister with bribery.
Netanyahu learned that to control law enforcement, it was not enough to appoint someone who had similar views to him in general and a distaste for disrupting public officials’ focus on governance.
His public security minister at the time, Gilad Erdan, also did him no favors, mostly staying out of the police’s way and even giving some damaging testimony relating to Netanyahu’s conduct in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
Rather, Netanyahu needed appointees whom he controlled because their offices were based only on their loyalty to him.
Ohana was a Likud backbencher until his regular attacks on law enforcement “earned” him the Justice Ministry.
In his short term as temporary justice minister, while he did not bother to try to make many nonpolitical policy moves, he did create chaos within the high ranks of the prosecution by trying to shove in appointees who would directly or indirectly help Netanyahu.
This earned him a permanent appointment as public security minister, despite many more qualified and veteran Likud officials who could have taken the job, but were not viewed as unwaveringly loyal to Netanyahu.
Ohana has made it clear he will try to elevate police officials into contending for the chief position who assist his pro-Netanyahu agenda – whether that means selectively oppressing protests or obstructing potential new probes of the Netanyahu family.
For the Judicial Selections Committee, Netanyahu foisted on Likud’s Osnat Hila Mark as his pick. Appointed judges might later rule on an appeal of the verdict in his bribery trial.
She was literally at the end of Likud’s Knesset list and the most reported fact about her has been that she keeps a prominently placed picture of disgraced fraudster Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto.
WHAT ABOUT in intelligence and national security?
For years Netanyahu might have sought some officials with similar policy views, but his appointees had top qualifications, and often disappointed him when it came to loyalty.
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo (2011-2016) was a thorn in Netanyahu’s side on policy both regarding Iran and the Palestinians.
Former Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen (2011-2016) had more in common with Netanyahu than his predecessor, Yuval Diskin, who the prime minister inherited. But he did not and does not support Netanyahu on policy when it differs with the Shin Bet’s institutional viewpoint.
Neither does current Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman, who has opposed Netanyahu both on annexation moves in the West Bank and on using his agency to fight the coronavirus.
With annexation on Netanyahu’s mind, Haaretz’s Yossi Melman wrote recently that the prime minister may try to replace Argaman with National Security Council Chief Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Ben-Shabbat is also a highly qualified career Shin Bet official.
But he is known to be more ready to gamble Israel’s relations with Jordan as part of a West Bank annexation move based on the idea that Amman’s need for Jerusalem’s anti-terror and other support will prevent any irreparable damage to relations.
Melman writes, “The concern now is that Netanyahu will exploit the degradation of national security officials who could have tried to push back against annexation and use the upcoming turnover period to install amenable yes-men. In other words, to further cultivate the seeds he’s already planted to politicize the top echelon of Israel’s security establishment.”
As an example, Melman noted that current Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, while universally viewed as highly successful, has also been careful to avoid any daylight with Netanyahu in public and on policy.
Cohen became Mossad chief after serving as Netanyahu’s national security adviser, which could make the option of moving Ben-Shabbat from the NSC to heading the Shin Bet look like a successful formula in Netanyahu’s eyes.
Netanyahu will also get to replace Cohen in June 2021, after giving him a six-month extension.
Of course, a prime minister is entitled to have senior officials around him who will implement his decisions.
But is it possible that Netanyahu’s experience with law enforcement and general recent growing tendency to quash dissent (see recently fired Knesset Corona Committee Chairwoman and Likudnik Yifat Shasha-Biton) will lead him to push for top intelligence and national security officials who will not debate him?
Since the fiasco of Israel being surprise attacked in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the broader trend has been to have pluralism in intelligence and national security so that every major issue has room for disparate views.
From a professional perspective, this is viewed as the best way to avoid being blindsided again by major developments or consequences of a policy decision related to war, peace or annexation.
Yet, Netanyahu kept the IDF and the Shin Bet at arms length while much of the annexation debate was taking place leading up to his original July 1 deadline.
He knew that the views of Argaman and top IDF intelligence officials on the danger to relations with Jordan and inflaming the West Bank would not be helpful.
There is also always the “elephant in the room” about whether Netanyahu’s decision on annexation and other policy issues are being impacted by the trial.
It is also unclear to what extent Gantz will throw around his weight on these issues, though a spokesperson for Gantz told The Jerusalem Post that he will ensure all appointments are properly professional.
With calling witnesses in Netanyahu’s trial beckoning in January, how the bribery charges will impact his law enforcement and national security appointments remains an open question.