Why Netanyahu wants to replace Israel's police chief

Israel's Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan tries maneuvering between good governance practices and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to replace the head of Israel Police, Roni Alsheikh.

al-monitor Chief of Israel Police Roni Alsheikh (C) leaves after speaking to the press at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 27, 2017. Photo by GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images.

May 23, 2018

The original three-year term of the commissioner of Israel Police, Roni Alsheikh, will end in a couple of months. Likud leaders do not envy Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan, who will soon have to decide whether to extend the term of Alsheikh, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees as leading the attempt to topple him by means of criminal investigations.

Since the investigations of the prime minister were revealed to the public in December 2016, Erdan has made sure to conduct himself professionally and appropriately with this hot potato, but Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have long considered him a collaborator with Alsheikh. The Netanyahus expected Erdan to act aggressively with Alsheikh and to fall on the grenade for them. In other words, they expected Erdan to follow Minister of Culture Miri Regev’s example. Regev did not turn down any chance to fulfill their expectations and their whims, as she showed at the Independence Day torch ceremony, for instance, when Netanyahu addressed the public, contrary to tradition, on that day.

Aware of Netanyahu’s feelings and the resentment that has built against him at the prime minister’s residence, Erdan has been trying to thread the needle all this time. On the one hand he’s made sure to say the prime minister is presumed innocent, and on the other he’s made sure to back the police and not leave them to face the delegitimization campaign against them alone.

Before Alsheikh’s three-year term ends in December, Erdan will have to decide whether to extend the term for another year, as the law allows, or appoint a new commissioner. The question of who might be the next commissioner has agitated the top ranks of the police as well, and the discord has intensified with allegations from Alsheikh and others that the prime minister is promoting the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy and has even met with him secretly behind the backs of Alsheikh and Erdan.

Of course, these decisions have enormous ramifications for the course of the Netanyahu investigations. The mere thought that he could influence the man who heads the police as it investigates him is worrisome. With this background and following a demand from opposition members of the Knesset to prevent such a conflict of interest, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit published an amplified warning for the prime minister May 22.

In his letter, Mandelblit instructs Erdan to consult with him when the time comes, before the term of the current commissioner is extended or his replacement is chosen “so that I could examine any conflict of interest connected to members of the government who have an interest in a police investigation and to advise you accordingly.” Netanyahu’s name is not mentioned in the letter, but it’s clear that this instruction relates to him.

Seemingly, Erdan has received approval from the attorney general to exclude Netanyahu from handling the future of the man he has marked as the leader of those conspiring to remove him from office, but in actuality the trap Erdan is in has only tightened around him.

“Gilad Erdan has a big problem,” a senior Likud leader told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “It’s not just that Netanyahu is angry with him — many party activists think that he should have stood by his side in the battle he’s waging against Alsheikh and the police. For Likud members, there’s a move to depose Netanyahu, and Erdan is not helping to stop it.”

Erdan knows these voices well. In personal meetings with party activists he has tried to explain to them that these things are not in his authority and that he’s not overseeing the investigations — which is true. In some cases his lobbying helps, but in other cases he can’t assuage the anger toward him. As a result, Erdan, considered one of the more popular Knesset members in the party, could absorb a hit in the primaries to determine the list of candidates for the next Knesset. Thus, for him, considered prominent among the top ranks of the Likud and once mentioned as someone who could head the party, this is a politically fateful period that could impact his future. If Netanyahu heads the Likud in the next election — and this is the likely scenario at this point — and is once again elected prime minister, not only will Erdan not be rewarded with an upgrade in the next government, he might suffer for it.

All these considerations are certainly in his mind, knowing that any decision he makes regarding Alsheikh or his replacement would be difficult and subject to interpretation. “Gilad Erdan will need a lot of political courage in order to decide to extend Alsheikh’s term by another year. It will be received very badly in the Likud, because it’s clear to everyone that it goes against the prime minister’s interest. It will be understood as defiance and damage to the prime minister,” a Likud member of the Knesset told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

If anyone doubted what’s in the commander’s heart, in March a venomous article against Erdan was published on the right-wing website Mida, whose editor, Ran Baratz, served as Netanyahu’s media adviser and is still associated with him. The headline said it all: “The Missing Minister: A Failing Grade in Leadership for Gilad Erdan.”

The article argued that Erdan is prominent among a line of silent politicians on the right, because he’s the only one who has the authority to intervene and stop the madness. After a series of compliments on his courage and his executive skills, the article said that “in recent months there’s a sense that something has gone wrong and much anger has started to build toward him among many activists on the right in general and in the Likud in particular. It seems that Erdan fears the commissioner and the police and goes along with them, instead of the opposite.” The article argues that Erdan should have replaced the commissioner immediately after Alsheikh apparently leaked details of the Netanyahu investigations in an interview with the Uvda television program in February. By the way, this argument against Erdan is often heard among Likud members, who are not so impressed by Erdan’s statement that Netanyahu could continue serving even if he’s indicted.

As the time for a decision nears, the pressure will mount on Erdan from within the Likud as well. He will have to show wisdom, courage and professionalism when he makes the decision that will also impact his political future. However, the fact that this discourse is taking place at all attests to the insanity of the political system and a loss of shame.

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