Police and Thieves: Erdan’s gamble

"Erdan knew that selecting a nominee from outside the police force would infuriate many of its top commanders, let alone members from the rank and file."

Former IDF Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch is seen leaving the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Former IDF Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch is seen leaving the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, if you’re going through a media storm, keep going.
That seems to be the motto Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has adopted, at least on Sunday night, when he announced that he’d asked to keep acting police commissioner, Asst.-Ch. Bentzi Sau, in office for another 45 days to gain more time for vetting his controversial candidate to head the force, former IDF Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch.
True, it helps that Erdan has the prime minister on his side and that so many of his opponents are from the police – an organization whose public standing today might be at an all-time low – but still, he’s sticking with his man and shows no sign of looking for a way to gracefully retreat from the biggest gamble of his political career.
Before last week, Erdan said on a number of occasions that it was only right for the next commissioner to come from within the organization, an assessment repeatedly made by his predecessor, Yitzhak Aharonovitch. So prior to his surprise announcement, most would have expected his selection to be one of the three top candidates – Sau, Asst.-Ch.
Zohar Dvir, head of the Northern District, or the head of the Southern District, Asst.-Ch. Yoram Halevy. All three have years of experience in some of the most sensitive and important positions in the police, with Dvir and Halevy both boasting the added appeal of having been commanders of the YAMAM, the police SWAT unit considered to be the best anti-terror squad in Israel.
FEW WOULD have expected the choice of Hirsch, a charismatic and talented IDF division commander who became a casualty of the Second Lebanon War, when he drew blame for some of the army’s missteps in the initial days of the fighting. His post-IDF career has also been cloaked in controversy, and the fact that his security firm has now been linked to an international corruption investigation gives the impression that he was not properly vetted prior to Erdan’s decision, even though no proof of wrongdoing on Hirsch’s part has emerged.
The decision to go with Hirsch is to some extent another example of how the army is held up as an ideal in Israel, an organization to admire, unlike the police. In the case of Hirsch, we have a senior officer forced to resign because of his conduct during one of Israel’s most controversial wars; also he is still considered a top candidate to head the police because of his long career as a commander of some of the IDF’s top units.
Though the Winograd Commission – set up to probe the Second Lebanon War – cleared Hirsch of wrongdoing and said an injustice had been done him, his time in the army became known to the public for controversy, a fact that has not scuttled his chances to head one of the most important branches of the country’s security establishment.
The selection of Hirsch is, more than anything else, a clear statement about the depths to which the police have fallen in the public’s eyes in recent years, and the extent to which Erdan – apparently unconcerned about what it will mean for his future relationship with the organization – is looking to shake things up. Following a string of sexual abuse scandals involving several of top police commanders – as well as the “Dispatch 100” affair, in which police bungled the distress call placed by one of the kidnapped teens last summer; the Pride Parade stabbing attack last month; and a host of other scandals – the organization is in a position where it really has nowhere left to go but up.
Picking someone like Sau, even with his many years of experience, would have been a sign that Erdan wants more of the same and believes that the old guard can eventually right the ship, a sentiment not shared by much of the public.
Taken in that light, the public security minister had to look outside the organization.
He had to find a figure with enough gravitas, experience and sheer force of personality and natural leadership to carry out the Herculean task of repairing a shattered organization and restoring the public’s faith in the country’s police. There are many retired generals the public knows well and who would have come without the baggage that Hirsch carries, but it was Hirsch who answered the call.
AS IT stands now, Hirsch is facing an uphill battle. He’s been attacked in the press by former police commanders and unnamed critics within the force, and his detractors from the army are getting a large podium, as are bereaved families who lost loved ones in the Second Lebanon War and partially hold Hirsch to blame.
If he is eventually confirmed, he’ll have to mend fences when he takes over, especially with the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Branch, Asst.-Ch. Meni Yitzhaki, whom Hirsch’s lawyer has accused of having “ulterior motives” for being opposed to the appointment. An accusation of wrongdoing, if not outright corruption, leveled at one of the force’s top commanders by Hirsch’s lawyer will not pass quietly, and the fact that Hirsch felt comfortable letting it be made says a lot about him and what he thinks about the police.
Still, if Hirsch’s career is any indication, he won’t back down from the challenge.
In the meantime, watching the controversy unfold, the public can draw some lessons about what it could indicate about Erdan as public security minister.
As No. 2 on the Likud Party list, he had expected to receive a top ministerial position, and certainly not the Public Security portfolio, one that carries little prestige and posses endless challenges. He also lacks a police or law enforcement background – unlike Aharonovitch, who spent almost his entire career in the Border Police before he went into politics.
Just a few months into his post, Erdan knew that selecting a nominee from outside the police force would infuriate many of its top commanders, let alone members from the rank and file. His decision to go forward indicates that however long he holds his current portfolio, he will not be afraid of butting heads with the organization he oversees, and when need be, he will want to force the police to accept decisions that are outside their comfort zone as he begins the work of returning public faith in the organization.
After the past few abysmal years for the Israel Police, this may be just what it needs, however hard it is to accept the current nominee.
The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. He also writes and hosts “Reasonable Doubt,” an English-language crime news podcast on TLV1.FM. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com