Israel's latest civil service fiasco worthy of Police Academy II

The collapse of Gal Hirsch’s nomination for top cop began not in the controversial general’s flaws but in the politicians’ lack of caution

Gal Hirsch (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Gal Hirsch
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
They did it again. For the eighth time in eight years, Israeli politicians chose a candidate for senior public office only to see their nomination crumble amid scandal, acrimony and angst.
What began in 2007 with then-MK Estherina Tartman’s derailed appointment as tourism minister, following revelations she claimed an MBA she never earned, was followed the next month with Prisons Service chief warden Ya’acov Ganot’s forgoing his nomination as chief of Israel Police following his acquittal for lack of evidence in a bribery case the previous decade.
It was a sign of things to come.
In 2010 another senior cop, Asst.-Ch. Uri Bar-Lev, was forced to withdraw his leading candidacy for inspector-general after a sexual harassment allegation, and this week the nomination of Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch for Israel Police’s inspector-generalship was canceled by the man who made the appointment, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
In the interim, there were the botched nominations in 2013, successively, of professors Jacob Frenkel and Leo Leiderman for the Bank of Israel’s governorship; the canceled nomination in 2011 of Eli Gabison as commissioner of prisons, following his failing a lie detector test; and the cancellation of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant’s appointment as chief of General Staff due to complaints he had paved a pathway to his house on partly-public land.
In this regard, then, the rise and fall of the Hirsch appointment is indeed part of a broader flaw in Israeli public life, as a frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted when he said, in the aftermath of the saga, that “our appointment process is difficult, protracted, hurtful and clearly deserves reevaluation.”
While the process evidently deserves the attention Netanyahu craves, this particular case is less about administrative process and more about political caution, resolve and authority.
NETANYAHU AND ERDAN still insist that Hirsch is the most suitable candidate for inspector-general, and blame his nomination’s failure on the approval process imposed on them by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein.
Hirsch’s nomination was originally attacked due to his record as a soldier, but it eventually fell over his record as a civilian.
As a soldier, Hirsch was a brilliant, brave and original commando who became a brigadier-general at 41, when he commanded the central division facing central Lebanon. However, his role during the Second Lebanon War, which was sparked by the ambush of a patrol in the territory he commanded, was criticized by a generals committee, and his meteoric military career consequently stalled at the General Staff’s doorstep.
Consequently, besides the criticism he faced for his performance, and besides his lack of familiarity with the policing profession, Hirsch also carried a seniority problem, because he was never a major-general and never led anything quite as big as 30,000 employees and a NIS 9.5 billion budget.
These drawbacks were all apparent to Erdan when he chose to parachute into a sick organization an inexperienced but charismatic and bold leader and thinker.
Hirsch’s inexperience was to be compensated for by his proven originality, while his wartime baggage would only intensify his already high motivation to be remembered as the man who reinvented the Israel Police.
At that point Erdan’s move, which was fully backed by Netanyahu, seemed like a reasonable gamble, an unorthodox appointment that, for better or worse, would materialize. Yet as often happens with gambles, this one soon proved to have been made hastily, when it turned out Erdan failed to pass it by the attorney- general.
Faced with information about the FBI investigating money trails of 20 Israeli defense companies active in Central Asia, including one owned by Hirsch, Weinstein told Erdan he would have to check the matter thoroughly, and that he could not commit to a deadline by which his scrutiny would end.
While there is no suspicion Hirsch did anything unlawful, the possibility that he was indirectly involved in business activity disagreeable to the US – like inappropriate payments to defense officials in various post-Soviet republics – multiplied his candidacy’s explosiveness.
“In these circumstances,” said Erdan, “I regretfully told Gal I will have to choose another candidate.”
That is of course true. It would have taken weeks and possibly months before Hirsch’s appointment could be cleared. Such a delay would be unacceptable in any setting, but under the current circumstances of renewed Palestinian violence, it is altogether inconceivable to leave Israel Police at the limbo where it has arrived.
Yet all this would have been avoided had the politicians at play behaved differently in the face of the Israel Police’s glaring ailments.
AS EXPLAINED here following Hirsch’s surprising nomination last month, the Israel Police is in bad need of thorough surgery.
The resignations over the past two years of nearly half of the Israel Police’s top command following allegations ranging from sexual misconduct to associations with felons; the suicide in July of its top fraud investigator; the failure to prevent the murder of Shira Banki in Jerusalem’s recent gay pride parade; and the fateful bungling last year of the phone call from one of the three teenagers abducted and murdered last year by Hamas terrorists have been interpreted by many as symptoms of organizational decay.
This is clearly how Erdan and Netanyahu saw it when they diagnosed the Israel Police’s illness as so grave that its treatment must be assigned to an imported surgeon. Now, the morning after the debacle, the two must stick to their preference for an external candidate, a strategy that triggered the protest of a battery of retired police chiefs who argued that police can be commanded only by a professional cop.
The search outside police ranks proved elusive when several major-generals, some in active service and some in the reserves, turned down Erdan’s quiet approaches. Despite his insistence that Hirsch was the perfect candidate, it seems that the minister reached him only after more senior and less controversial alternatives were explored.
This, not the flaws of the Israeli public-appointment process, is where this fiasco begins.
The question should not be why Erdan and Netanyahu failed to pass Hirsch’s appointment, but why they failed to persuade senior generals such as former deputy chief of staff Yair Naveh, former OC Ground Forces Yiftah Ron-Tal, or current OC Depth Command Tal Russo.
Now, as the nomination process returns to square one, the two ministers are likely to speak differently to such external candidates, emphasizing not this office’s prestige but the country’s urgent needs, and not the candidates’ interests but their patriotism.
Some candidates turned down the offer out of humility, some out of calculation, and some out of fastidiousness.
Humility made some genuinely think their lack of police background rendered them ineligible.
Calculation made some fear failure. And fastidiousness made others prefer publicly safer alternatives.
Such attitudes would likely have been overcome had these candidates been approached more forcefully, as they now surely will. David Ben-Gurion or Ariel Sharon, if faced with such refusals, would never have accepted such noes, but would have told candidates that their eligibility is not for them to judge, that leadership is a talent rather than a skill, and that illness often demands outside intervention.
Netanyahu was in this kind of situation two years ago when he and then-finance minister Yair Lapid desperately searched outside the Bank of Israel for a candidate for its governorship, only to ultimately end up with the internal choice, Dr. Karnit Flug.
Netanyahu thought Flug lacked her predecessor Stanley Fischer’s charisma and authority, and only grudgingly acquiesced with her installment after two other nominations collapsed. Though she indeed lacks the charisma Netanyahu sought, Flug’s performance is far from poor. Then again, the Bank of Israel was not ill. On the contrary, it was, and remains, one of the Civil Service’s healthiest agencies. That cannot be said of the Israel Police.
When he became police’s civilian supervisor last spring, Erdan, a relatively young (45), popular and aspiring Likud leader, rightly detected the need for a revolution.
However, he had all summer to pick and install his revolutionary, and ultimately failed to deliver the goods – for the police, for the government, and for his own career.
This will carry two results, one in the longer term, the other immediate.
In the longer term, senior public- office appointments will first be run by the attorney-general, at least as an unwritten rule.
In the meantime, Netanyahu, unable to leave police leaderless when crisis outside demands action and decay within demands surgery, will personally enter the fray and impose himself on a new candidate by exercising what he and his lieutenant have not displayed throughout this saga: authority.