NSO scandal is symptom of rot in Israeli police culture - opinion

Culture is what is really at the heart of the problem with Israel’s police force.

 BORDER POLICE patrol at the Western Wall. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
BORDER POLICE patrol at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In 2015, in the span of just about a year, almost half of the entire top command of the Israel Police stepped down. It was unheard of for the Israel Police, or probably any other hierarchical security organization for that matter. Could anyone imagine, for example, half of the IDF generals having to leave one after the other?

But that is what happened at the National Police headquarters on Haim Bar-Lev Boulevard in northern Jerusalem. Seven top commanders hung up their uniforms prematurely, and were forced into early retirement amid various sex and corruption scandals.

But while it was unprecedented, it was not a surprise to the personnel inside the force: sexual harassment had become part of the police culture.

Indeed, culture is what is really at the heart of the problem with Israel’s police force. It is the reason why governments over the years have appointed, or tried to appoint, candidates to serve as commissioner from outside the police ranks. Can you imagine someone who is not an IDF general becoming chief of staff?

But in the police department that works because of the culture there, which according to current and former officers I spoke with this week, encourages mediocrity.

 FORMER ISRAELI police commissioner Roni Alsheich during a visit to the Western Wall in 2016. It was during Alsheich’s tenure that spyware became increasingly used by the police (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) FORMER ISRAELI police commissioner Roni Alsheich during a visit to the Western Wall in 2016. It was during Alsheich’s tenure that spyware became increasingly used by the police (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

“Curiosity and independent thinking are not viewed positively in the police,” explained Dr. Pinhas Yehezkeli, a former senior police officer who stepped down in 2010 after serving as commander of a number of city stations as well as the police college.

One example, according to Yehezkeli, is the lack of emphasis on higher education among the top police brass. Ten out of the force’s top 18 officers have degrees from online-learning universities. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, for example, is a graduate of Derby University.

According to Yehezkeli, this is not surprising. University degrees are not obtained to create an intellectual environment and to promote debate, but rather to get the officer a higher paycheck, since the more degrees a cop has, the more money she or he receives in their bank account.

Why is this culture important? Because this is what has enabled the alleged misuse of spyware by police officers against Israeli civilians.

What exactly happened and who NSO’s Pegasus software was used against we do not know yet. But what was telling this week was that even Shabtai does not trust his own police force to investigate. He asked the public security minister to appoint an external committee run by a judge and not a police officer. He must have his reasons.

The Wiretap Act that was passed in Israel in 1979 was last seriously updated in 2005. NSO was not around then, nor was the type of technology that allowed someone to covertly enter someone’s cell phone and download all of their content. In a serious democracy, this law would have been updated. Unfortunately, not in Israel.

But that is not the only legislative lacuna when it comes to law enforcement in Israel. Tel Aviv Public Defender Michal Orkabi told The Jerusalem Post’s Yonah Jeremy Bob in December that one problem she often encounters pertains to the legal principle of “fruit of the poisonous tree,” a dictum in the US under which evidence obtained without court approval and not in accordance with legal procedure is considered tainted and unusable. Ditto, anything that stems from it.

According to Orkabi, the police break the rules and in most cases – as long as they got their hands on a valuable piece of evidence but did not go too far in invading someone’s privacy, the courts will look the other way.

In other words, the courts are also part of the problem.

And there is something else: politics. It is convenient for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to now cry foul and declare that he is the victim of an injustice amid reports that Pegasus was used against people connected to his trial, but he is also a party to those responsible for this police culture.

Netanyahu led this country from 2009 until 2021, and during that time he oversaw six different police commissioners. By comparison, there were three Mossad chiefs and three Shin Bet directors during his term.  There is little doubt today that he had an interest in keeping the police weak, understaffed and underbudgeted – and so did other prime ministers before him.

The reasons vary. Unlike the Mossad or the Shin Bet, the police don’t bring glory to a prime minister. They don’t discover nuclear reactors or steal nuclear archives like the Mossad, and they also don’t stop massive terrorist attacks like the Shabak. What the police do is cause political headaches: they investigate politicians and cause them distress, and often far worse – indictments, followed by prison sentences.

One of the great stories illustrating this occurred in 2007, just days after the Mossad had uncovered evidence that Syria was covertly building a nuclear reactor with help from North Korea. The head of the Mossad had come to Jerusalem to show the evidence for the first time to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. As he was looking at the evidence, there was a knock at the door of his office. In walked Olmert’s spokesman, informing the prime minister that a TV channel was going to broadcast news that evening of a new investigation against him.

It was Mossad glory and police headaches all at once.

When there is a deep-rooted cultural problem within an organization, that organization needs to be rebuilt. It needs to be restructured. That does not mean defunding the police, and it also does not mean a Band-Aid solution by appointing some former IDF general or top Shabak agent to lead the police. This is not real reform. This is superficial.

Real reform can only happen when the government wants it, and when the police are prepared for it. It requires updating legal codes, legislation, budgets, allowing new manpower, and creating a police force that can actually combat and prevent crime. When there are pockets of lawlessness in the country – whether among Bedouin in the Negev, Israeli-Arab towns in the North or on some hilltops in the West Bank – how can we expect the police to do its job?

What the police are suspected of doing with NSO is not only illegal, but it has the potential to undo Israel’s democracy and makes us more like a dark police state than the enlightened liberal country we strive to emulate. The alleged illicit activity might have occurred under orders from a senior officer, or by a rogue group of cops whose fingers were quick on a mouse instead of a trigger. If the police had high-quality leaders – people who understood and valued the role they play in society – this might have been avoided.

This culture is what needs to change.

***

Why are people surprised? That is the question I asked myself on Wednesday night when seeing the tweet put out by the British Board of Deputies calling MK Bezalel Smotrich a “disgrace,” and asking him to never visit the United Kingdom again.

The leader of the far-right National Religious Party had arrived in London as part of a tour through Europe to garner support against some of the government’s religious reforms.

“Get back on the plane Bezalel and be remembered as a disgrace forever,” the Board of Deputies tweeted, saying that it rejected Smotrich’s “disgusting ideology that promotes hatred.”

Another leading UK Jewish group – the Zionist Federation – joined the Board of Deputies, saying that Smotrich’s “far-right politics of hatred and division... have no place in our country nor in our community.”

Some Israelis had difficulty coming to terms with the harsh words of the British groups. Boycotting Smotrich, they said, was wrong, and would lead to reciprocal boycotts. Ideological differences need to be tolerated, these people claimed, and Jews should never speak so harshly of other Jews, especially elected Israeli officials.

I beg to differ. What we Israelis need to realize is that just because we have grown accustomed to racism and hate speech in our own public discourse does not mean that the rest of the world has to or needs to. And that is what Smotrich is, and represents. His words are racist and homophobic and his worldview sadly has more in common with the religious radicals of Iran than with the Jewish liberals of London.

On the eve of the last Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the country turns it focus to the hate that resulted in the murder of six million Jews, Smotrich said that “a true Muslim must know that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, and over time people like you who don’t recognize that will not remain here.”

He has called gay pride parades “worse than what beasts do,” and claimed that the Israeli public “abhors” the parade as “the act of a group of beasts.”

He has called for Israel to be “run according to the laws of the Torah,” the “way it was in the days of King David and King Solomon.”

He has called for segregated wards in Israeli hospitals, saying that his wife would not want to give birth next to an Arab woman. And the quotes goes on and on.

That is a problem, a cultural problem that reflects poorly on Israel, not on the British.

What we have to ask ourselves is: how did we allow this to become normal? How did we allow a politician who speaks this way to become a legitimate partner for coalitions, to serve as a cabinet minister, as he did under Netanyahu?

British Jewry, which recently marked a record number of antisemitic incidents in 2021, stated clearly this week that they will not normalize Smotrich. That is their right. If only we in Israel had the guts to do the same.