Israel Pulse

Israel police chief falls into Netanyahu’s trap

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Article Summary
The interview accorded by Israeli police Chief Roni Alsheikh to daily Yedioth Ahronoth plays into the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his accusations of being persecuted.

Over the past few weeks, investigations in cases involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his associates have been stepped up. And with this increased investigation rhythm, Netanyahu’s associates also sharpened their messages condemning the media and the police for allegedly persecuting the prime minister. These messages and continuous pressure apparently took their toll on police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, who decided last week to publicly react.

Sadly, the brief interview that Alsheikh gave to Yedioth Ahronoth, which was published Nov. 12, played into the hands of Netanyahu and his representatives in the Likud Party.

The police commissioner gave the interview right before the Sabbath (on Friday afternoon), in his own yard, while wearing civilian clothes and sandals. In the background stood the representatives of the Police, Pensioners and Prison Guards committees, who had come to offer him their support and gave him flowers before the cameras. This was, of course, no coincidence. Alsheikh's spokespeople wanted to evince a relaxed and supportive mood. Accordingly, the commissioner's statement highlighted his determination; it was intended to show Netanyahu that he is not afraid to continue investigating him and his associates. "I'm not counting anything. I simply put up a wall. It [the investigation] was a rational decision, which will eventually have an impact on the state of mind," he said.

Alsheikh seemed to have made the necessary move, when he said in the interview that he is standing as firm as a fortress, despite all the pressure and the attacks against him. But he could have sent the same message using social networks, for example, with a short note that he himself would have written to all the citizens of Israel. His decision to grant an exclusive interview to a newspaper, whose publisher, Arnon Mozes, is himself the target of a criminal investigation — in Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is also a suspect — is problematic. Someone around Alsheikh must have known that a flattering interview, which would make the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, is exactly the kind of trap that Netanyahu and his people expected Alsheikh to fall into.

And in fact, it did not take long before Netanyahu's new media director Yonatan Urich wrote a tweet claiming that the police commissioner's exclusive and very flattering interview was designed to influence the Mozes investigation. It is now obvious that Alsheikh's flirtation with Yedioth Ahronoth could turn into another negative "testimony" about the commissioner in the campaign being waged against him by Netanyahu’s associates.

For several weeks now, Alsheikh has been subjected to an unprecedented and unrestrained negative campaign by the prime minister and his team. And so it looks like the relaxed atmosphere Alsheikh tried to relay in the interview sent the exact opposite message. A more confident police commissioner would have been in no hurry to give an interview right before the Sabbath. On the other hand, what Alsheikh did is completely understandable. He was appointed to his position after a lengthy career in the Shin Bet, where no one cast aspersions on his personal integrity. Netanyahu was actually the one who pushed forward the nomination of religious, senior Shin Bet Alsheikh as head of the Israeli police. But then Netanyahu realized that Alsheikh would not be doing him any favors when it came to the criminal investigations against him. And so, the commissioner was targeted by a timely and well-organized delegitimization campaign, orchestrated by the house on Balfour Street (Netanyahu’s residence).

Netanyahu's unprecedented attack Oct. 15, targeting what he considered to be a "tsunami" of police leaks against him, was the first indication of bad news ahead. Later, Knesset member David Amsalem (Likud) was sent to advance the Recommendations law through the Knesset. Amsalem is Netanyahu's enforcer, when it comes to intimidating the police commissioner and impugning his reputation.

The legislation that he is proposing — and which was approved in a preliminary reading in the Knesset Nov. 8 — would prohibit the police from releasing any recommendations once an investigation is over, on whether or not to indict the suspects. This would help Netanyahu in the public forum if the suspicions against him are confirmed and the police recommend that he be indicted in the case of the gifts, for instance. People would not know how serious the charges against the prime minister really are. It would then take quite a while before they are finally informed of their severity, when the state attorney's office completes its job.

Once the passing of the Recommendations law was set in motion, Amsalem's next step was to go after Lior Horev, the police commissioner's external adviser. The adviser had angered Netanyahu’s associates by tweeting against the government and the Likud Knesset member, despite this being explicitly forbidden in his contract. Horev, who is known for his fights with Netanyahu, was designated by Amsalem as part of the mechanism in place to topple Netanyahu, while working on behalf of the police on the taxpayers' dime. Of course, the Horev story went viral, thanks to the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Netanyahu and his people.

On Nov. 8, Amsalem suggested cutting the police commissioner's salary, which now stands at 83,000 shekels (roughly $23,000) a month. He claims that this is too high and that it is unreasonable for him to earn more than the prime minister, who makes 50,000 shekels ($14,000), excluding full coverage of his expenses and other benefits. Netanyahu was quick to distance himself from this proposal, just as he did with the "French law," offering immunity to incumbent prime ministers, and said that he is not behind it.

It is not clear whether Netanyahu really thinks anyone believes that in such sensitive times, as he fights for his political and public survival, Amsalem acted of his own accord. It is also quite obvious that the police commissioner's salary will not be cut. Still, the message is clear. It is directed, first and foremost, to Alsheikh himself, but also to the general public, and particularly to Netanyahu's electorate.

Having been interrogated again on Nov. 8, Netanyahu certainly realizes that the noose is tightening and that the investigation into Case 1000 — for allegedly receiving gifts and benefits from businesspeople — is about to end. At the same time, however, the political timetable is working in his favor. There is a good chance that he will face the next election before the state attorney's office decides on what counts to charge him.

The negative campaign against Alsheikh was intended precisely for these dismal days. Having realized that the police commissioner does not work for him, Netanyahu wants to reach a point in which the police in general and Alsheikh in particular are regarded by the public as part of an attempt to bring down his right-wing government and the Likud. Furthermore, he wants people to believe that the participants in this campaign include the left and the media, led by Yedioth Ahronoth. Netanyahu thinks that if this happens, he will be able to get through another election and win.

It's too bad that Alsheikh fell into the trap and served the interests of this hypothesis. It is also too bad that Netanyahu dragged the police commissioner into the media fray. The potential damage this could do to the image of the police as an official organization is enormous.

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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