The spy who came in from the cold – to lead the police

Roni Alsheich, deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel security agency) was introduced – somewhat – to the Israeli public last Friday as all but a shoo-in for the new chief of police, finally, mercifully bringing the hunt for a new chief to an end.

Alsheich (whose name can now be printed, saving us the silly requirement of calling him simply “R”) brings impressive credentials – a former company and deputy brigade commander in the Paratroops – he has spent over two decades in the Shin Bet, including in the agency’s manpower, strategy and planning departments. He was also, reportedly, a top candidate to replace the current Shin Bet head, Yoram Cohen, when his term ends next May.

Since last Friday, a series of statements has been made by politicians and security officials who know Alsheich personally, attesting to his talents and suitability to head the Israel Police, the message appearing to be that, this time, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan found his man.

The selection of a top official from the Shin Bet does indeed make more sense than a former IDF brigadier-general like Gal Hirsch, whose candidacy was rescinded by Erdan last week after weeks of controversy and questions about an international corruption probe indirectly involving Hirsch’s security company.

The Shin Bet, like the Israel Police, deals with internal security and collaborates on a daily basis with the police on an untold number of investigations around the country. Its officers and field agents are investigators first, using a vast network of informants, sources and state-of-the art technology to work security cases and prevent terrorism.

That’s where the similarities end, though. The Shin Bet is a clandestine organization – Israel’s secret police and internal spy agency. It works in the shadows, far from the public eye. It is run by the Prime Minister’s Office and has an aura of secrecy and entire range of tools at its disposal that the police can only dream of.

On the state security ladder, the Shin Bet is second to the Mossad when it comes to prestige and public acclaim, with the police a very distant third. Being employed by the Shin Bet – whatever the capacity – affords an Israeli a certain cachet with friends and family, something that, to put it lightly, is not the same for cops.

This is one of the reasons that beyond his very real credentials and relevant experience with the Shin Bet, Alsheikh’s appointment should go smoothly. The Israeli public loves its spies and has for decades grown accustomed to an entire “shadow state” of security agencies, gag orders, military-censor decrees and pixilated men and women, named only with single letters. The secrecy affords greater prestige to agencies whose daily operations also involve monotonous data collection and gritty fieldwork, with often questionable standards of conduct.

The shadow organizations are a fact of life and are given certain freedoms from public scrutiny not afforded to the Israel Police. They’re held up to a different standard and not seen for what they are – large agencies full of very human people who, no matter how talented they are, have the same frailties and selfish concerns as the rest of us.

Now that Alsheich has emerged from the shadows (though anyone who can Google in Hebrew should have known his name prior to last Friday), all that will change. He’ll no longer be a spymaster working behind closed doors; instead, his will be the very public face of an organization the public does not think very highly of these days.

He won’t have the prestige or secrecy of the Shin Bet to lean on next time a senior cop is accused of sexual harassment or caught posting a ridiculous status on Facebook, or next time a flagship case crumbles just before indictment.

The scandal will play out in the public sphere and the media will have a field day. Alsheich will be judged by the blue uniform he’s wearing, and it won’t be pretty. He will learn that managing the police – even with its penchant for gag orders on investigations – is a very public affair, and one the media love to take to task.

That’s not to say that he won’t be up to the challenge. By all accounts, he’s a highly talented commander and one of the best officers the Shin Bet has. He’s also reportedly an expert at hi-tech investigative means – something of great interest to the Israel Police, which in recent years has invested heavily in, particularly for its cyber investigations department.

Another reality Alsheich will have to face is that many of the investigative means at his disposal in the Shin Bet will be unavailable in the police – in particular, the use of “enhanced interrogation methods,” legions of Palestinian informants and wiretaps that don’t need warrants. He’ll be heading an organization that has to play by the letter of the law and is not given the leeway afforded a clandestine agency tasked with Israel’s internal security needs.

For the public, this is one aspect of his appointment that could be of concern.

This summer, the state began using administrative detentions against Israeli citizens accused of security crimes in the West Bank – in particular after the July torching of a Palestinian family’s home in Duma, which killed three.

In recent years, police commanders have pushed for more and more “investigative tools,” including administrative detention and fewer restrictions on wire taps and search warrants, as well as what must be disclosed to defendants on trial.

With Alsheich as head of the force, the path to these means could be closer – and not just for security suspects, but for organized crime.

The West Bank – where Alsheich was commander of Shin Bet operations – is in many ways a twilight zone, not separate from Israel, but very clearly part of a separate reality. Will he decide that the Israel Police needs the same tools as the Shin Bet if it wants better results? If so, it could be another indication of how the alternative legal reality in the West Bank has seeped into Israeli society within the Green Line, much like the appointment of the deputy head of the Shin Bet to lead the country’s police.

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