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Israel's police face another scandal

With the backdrop of recent scandals, the Israeli public no longer trusts the police, while its senior officers, including the chief of police, Yohanan Danino, continue to ignore criticism.
Israeli policemen stand guard at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City March 15, 2013. Israeli police declared an age limit on Friday for Palestinians wanting to enter the Old City, only allowing males above the age of 50 and all females to enter. REUTERS/Amir Cohen (JERUSALEM - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTR3F156

“Do I look shook up?” responded Israeli Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino July 4, when a journalist asked him about a serious scandal that was beginning to send another tremor through the police force. At the time, details of the affair were banned from publication, so speculation was causing quite a commotion on the social networks. Danino had apparently sought to exhibit indifference to minimize the gravity of the situation, the details of which were released two days later, having a harsh impact on the organization he heads.

As it turns out, Danino really should have been “shook up” after Ronel Fisher, one of the country’s top lawyers, was arrested after apparently receiving a suitcase containing $150,000. Fisher supposedly got the money from Alon Hassan, former head of the Ashdod Port workers committee who is suspected of bribery. Hassan told police that Fisher, who was once his lawyer, had offered to pay senior police officers to drop cases against his clients.

According to Hassan, the police Fisher was referring to are the senior officers of the elite Lahav (Unit) 433, the nationwide police unit that investigates corruption and organized crime. Even if only a small part of this affair turns out to be true, this scandal will rattle the police force. There is no more obvious indicator that an organization is sick and corrupt than when corruption penetrates its “holiest of holies.”

Lahav 433 was created in 2008 as the Israeli equivalent of the FBI. Huge sums of money were invested in it, and it was promoted as a symbol of the war against corruption. Over the past year, however, the unit has became a symbol of the sickness pervading the Israeli police force.

In February 2014, the unit's head, Maj. Gen. Menashe Arbiv, was forced to retire from the police force on suspicion of taking bribes from Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, currently under indictment for bribery and money laundering. Another senior officer, Brig. Gen. Ephraim Bracha was exonerated in the affair and promoted to head the Fraud Investigation Unit. Bracha’s lawyer was none other than Ronel Fisher. As is now becoming public, because of his ties to senior police officers, Fisher apparently had access to classified information from the most sensitive investigations. He is now suspected of using that information to benefit his clients in exchange for money.

Just the suspicion that this has happened — with the alleged involvement of senior law enforcement officers, no less — should keep every Israeli citizen awake at night. How is it possible that the police chief himself refuses to show the slightest concern about it?

The Arbiv scandal coincided with another, no less serious scandal involving senior police officials. Maj. Gen. Niso Shaham, who heads the Jerusalem district, was forced to resign after being charged with sexually harassing female police officers under his command. While these two scandals occupied the spotlight, the country’s big cities were reeling from a wave of violence among the major organized crime families. With all this going on, how could the government have unanimously voted in January 2014 to extend Danino’s term by another year without concerns being raised?

There is no obvious answer. If anything, the explanation seems to lie in Danino’s considerable political skills, his close ties to senior figures in the media and his talent for brushing off every fiasco and failure as if he weren’t actually the head of his organization.

One month after his term was extended, the supposedly brilliant investigation of a much-publicized murder at the LGBT “Youth Bar” fell apart. It turned out that the suspect, Haggai Felician, had been framed by a state witness. Investigators ignored obvious holes in the witness’s testimony, and Felician almost went to prison for decades.

One final example of police ineptitude that is currently reverberating throughout the country is the emergency operator’s lack of response when the three teenagers were abducted in June. “They kidnapped me!” whispered a bold and resourceful 16-year-old Gil-Ad Shaer in a rushed conversation with the operator after dialing 100. His call for help fell on deaf ears. Too many valuable hours passed before it finally clicked at police headquarters that this was a real incident. During that time, even frantic calls by the boy’s father, Ofir Shaer, to the police were discounted and ridiculed.

No one was surprised by the flawed performance of the emergency operators. In 2013, the comptroller for the Ministry of Internal Security left a scathing report on the police chief's desk after he had investigated how operators respond to emergencies. His findings were harsh: the operators were inexperienced and untrained, lacked basic skills and were unsupervised.

As would be expected, the failure of the emergency operator during the three boys’ abduction cast a grim light on the police, and rightfully so. Many citizens recalled how they too had failed to receive an appropriate response when they called the police for help. Many remembered Gadi Vichman, who was stabbed to death in May 2012 in a public park, right beneath his window, for doing nothing more than telling a group of young people that they were making too much noise late at night. Neighbors’ complaints to the police before the murder were ignored.

When the three boys were abducted, Danino was overseas. The fact that it took him two days to realize that he should return to Israel exacerbated the public's sense that the police force was being poorly managed. It was later discovered that Danino wasn’t even attending a conference of police chiefs in New York, as he had originally claimed. Instead, he was attending a much less important conference in San Francisco.

When Danino did return to Israel, he first tried to postpone dealing with the failure on the part of the emergency operator services. Upon receiving the findings of an investigative committee, he removed several officers in the chain of command, but he never said a word about his own responsibility as the commander of the entire organization.

As it turns out, Danino never makes mistakes. He is never at fault, regardless of whether the issue is his failed appointments to top positions, the embarrassing scandals at the highest echelons of the police force, the emergency operator debacle or the handling of the wave of violence among top criminals. Danino remains detached from the public, despite survey after survey showing that Israelis have a severe lack of trust in the police.

A recent report by the Rand Corporation claims that the public’s confidence in the country’s police is among the lowest of all Western nations. The Israeli police force is also currently one of the least trusted of all public service organizations. A survey conducted by the National Union of Israeli Students last February showed that 78% of students have little trust in the police.

But everything is just fine as far as Danino is concerned. “From a historical perspective, this period will be considered the best ever for the Israeli police,” he told the Knesset’s Interior Committee in March.

“I tried to spearhead reform of the police department,” recalled one former Knesset member in a conversation with Al-Monitor, "but as it turned out, there was no one to talk to. I found an organization where the culture of management ranged from the problematic to the corrupt. What I especially remember is the method of gauging objectives and targets, which seemed to me to be more like some kind of manipulative technique used to highlight results. The fact that Danino uses all kinds of graphs to show how successful the Israeli police is is incompatible with the mood of the general public. What it shows most of all is detachment.”

Danino is a public relations fanatic. He's the first police chief with a personal spokesman. The division now employs 90 spokespeople and consultants, and he has put his personal public relations campaign high on the list of its priorities. The public still remembers how he reproached his own spokesman just one month after he assumed office: Following a joint exercise involving the army and the police, Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz’s photo appeared on the front pages of all the newspapers, while Danino’s picture was conspicuously absent. For Danino, this was absolutely intolerable. After all, he had risen from the ranks of the 890th Paratrooper Battalion, just as Gantz had. The message that he wanted to send was that he was no less important than the chief of staff.

For the Arab community, Nakba Day marks Israel's declaration of independence. It is a sensitive and potentially volatile time, but two years ago, Danino spent the day with the actor Guri Alfi, shooting a promotional film. He was criticized harshly for this, at least internally, but he simply brushed it off.

Writers for the satirical show "Eretz Nehederet" (“Wonderful Country”) proved time and time again how well they understand key figures and trends in the country and the general mood of the public. In one of the show’s final episodes, Danino was depicted as a detached, smug and utterly ridiculous police chief. Danino's character scolded the interviewer, “Once again, you people in the media choose to focus on the negative. Give us credit for reducing the number of fatalities on the highways! Most people were killed in nightclubs instead!” The skit mocked Danino's pride in lowering the number of traffic casualties, as violence in nightclubs claimed more and more victims.

Danino stands at the head of a sick organization. He is part of the problem, so he cannot be part of the solution. It is unfortunate that his term was extended. While it's true that there were fiascos and failures before Danino, it still seems as if during his tenure, the sickness, mediocrity and corruption only became more deeply entrenched. Unlike the army, the police force has not built an ethos of excellence in the past several years. Instead, more and more senior officers have gotten themselves tangled in embarrassing scandals and a wide range of disconcerting debacles.

But Danino doesn’t feel shaken up. It's too bad. Someone should shake up the Israeli police, and the sooner the better.

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