Are problematic actions and questionable methods sometimes used when conducting investigations the real reasons why more and more Israelis are showing a lack of trust in the police? Or is it the incessant barrage of complaints by politicians that the police are doing everything they can to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Regardless, it is certainly worth noting that data released by Haifa University in December 2018 showed that the level of public trust in the police is the lowest it has been since 2013.
The police have come under intense criticism in the past few years over the way they have handled all sorts of issues, such as their dealings with Israelis of Ethiopian origins. In June, the country was in an uproar when a young Ethiopian Israeli named Solomon Tekah was killed by a police officer. Protests over the way the police treat the Ethiopian community have started again over the last few days.
The most profound criticism revolves around the investigation of the prime minister. According to Netanyahu and his supporters, the police used illegitimate means to recruit state witnesses, such as Nir Hefetz, to testify against him, with the explicit purpose of removing the prime minister from power. Similarly, intense pressure was allegedly placed on millionaire Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the Walla website, who is suspected of bribing Netanyahu in order to become a state witness and testify against him. So, for instance, Elovitch was arrested and detained, even though there was apparently no fear that he might flee the country, and his assets and accounts were frozen for a time. According to a Channel 12 report on Nov. 6, the police even pressured Elovitch’s son to replace his father’s lawyer while he was in detention, since that lawyer had helped Netanyahu with his other cases. The reasoning was that the lawyer was preventing Elovitch from signing an agreement to be a state witness.
While Elovitch did not change his mind, Netanyahu’s former media adviser Hefetz signed an agreement to offer testimony against Netanyahu. Various reports claim that the pressure placed on him was also illegitimate. Hefetz was placed in a moldy cell for days on end. He complained that he was deprived of sleep and that his whole body was covered with flea bites, for which he received no medical attention. Transcripts of Hefetz’s interrogation, which were made public this week, found that the police even called a female witness, who had nothing to do with the investigation, for the explicit purpose of pressuring and breaking Hefetz. It was also learned that the police investigator responsible for investigating Hefetz resigned from the police as soon as the investigation was over. The police then refused to give information as to why he chose to resign and if it has anything to do with the investigation or criticism of it. During Netanyahu’s hearing, his attorneys gave accounts of what seemed to be illicit means of investigation, including the pressuring of witnesses. They then demanded that any testimonies collected in an illegal manner should be suppressed.
As far as Netanyahu and other senior Likud officials are concerned, this proves that the prime minister is being hounded by the police, and that they will do whatever it takes to bring him down. These grievances reached a whole new level this week, when Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who happens to be close to Netanyahu, got up in the Knesset on Nov. 6 to reveal details of the Hefetz investigation, despite a gag order issued by the courts. Ohana claimed that the police only left Hefetz alone after they received a fabricated version of events from him, or in other words, one that was put together for the explicit purpose of incriminating Netanyahu. In an interview with Army Radio the next day, Communications Minister David Amsalem accused former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, former deputy head of the Shin Bet, of “taking the norms of behavior used by the Shin Bet to fight terrorism and introducing them into civil society. Before we know it, they will be using moderate physical force against people.”
Criticism of the police by Netanyahu and his supporters intensified over the last two weeks, following the interrogation of his closest advisers over suspicions that they intimidated state witness Shlomo Filber. These advisers — Ofer Golan, one of Likud campaign managers, and Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich — are suspected of parking a vehicle decked out with loudspeakers outside of Filber’s apartment to blare attacks on him and his testimony. They claimed that this was all part of the election campaign, that Filber wasn’t even home at the time and that he never filed a complaint with the police. What finally caused an uproar was the discovery that the police went through the advisers’ cellphones without a court-issued warrant. This activity by the police hurt their image even more, with criticism crossing political lines.
What is the consequence of all this? Public trust in law enforcement is showing signs of a sharp decline. A poll by Globes published Nov. 7, which was conducted before reports about Hefetz were made public, found that 44% of respondents claimed that their trust in the legal system had deteriorated over the past year, while one-third of all respondents did not believe in law enforcement at all, whether it was the courts, the State Attorney’s Office or the police. The police received the lowest marks for public trust, with 43% of respondents saying that their trust in the police was low, and 72% saying that they believe that the police commonly take a selective approach to law enforcement. As Netanyahu himself puts it, “No Netanyahu, no interrogation.” He argues that his contacts with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes were all that the police investigated (Case 2000), while relationships that other politicians had with Mozes weren’t investigated at all, even though they resulted in positive coverage for those politicians.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor, one senior police officer claimed on condition of anonymity that the more serious and severe a case is, the tougher the means needed to investigate the truth. He went on to say that it is obvious that some of the investigative methods reported in certain cases bordered on or maybe even exceeded what is considered acceptable, but that ultimately, they resulted in the desired outcomes. He emphasized that from a legal perspective, the testimony of a state witness alone is not enough to indict someone, and that in each case, the testimony of a witness must be backed up with additional evidence.
To what degree will this criticism of the police and their methods impact the attorney general’s decision to indict Netanyahu, and if so, on what charges? In a conversation with Al-Monitor, one senior attorney said on condition of anonymity that there is a chance that Avichai Mandelblit will ignore any testimonies that do not have enough evidence to support them, and that as a result, he might even reduce the severity of the charges from bribery to violation of trust. The attorney then added that despite all this, the current criticism of the police is not enough to cause Mandelblit to avoid indicting Netanyahu altogether.