TEL AVIV — In a move fraught with near-Shakespearean intrigue — though cynics said it was closer to “The Sopranos” — the top corruption fighter of the Israeli police force was sacked by his civilian boss Sunday, hours before a political gathering of the top cop’s most vocal detractors.
The firing of Moshe Mizrahi, chief of the national police investigations unit, followed a months-long controversy over his alleged mishandling of a five-year-old wiretap transcript. But the timing of his dismissal, on the eve of a crucial Likud central committee meeting, led to widespread speculation that the firing was not procedural but political.
Mizrahi is an object of intense hatred among rank-and-file Likud Party activists, who suspect him of waging ideologically motivated witch-hunts against a host of senior party leaders, including Prime Minister Sharon. The news of Mizrahi’s Sunday-morning sacking was greeted with celebration when the Likud central committee convened that evening to fill three key party leadership slots.
The jubilant mood over Mizrahi’s sacking might have helped Sharon win over the 3,000-member central committee for the first time in months, after a string of humiliations over his Gaza disengagement plan. Sharon’s allies won two of the three open party posts Sunday, including the crucial position of central committee chairman. The winner, longtime Sharon lieutenant Tsahi Hanegbi, defeated Uzi Landau, the main Likud foe of disengagement, by a narrow 250 votes.
Mizrahi, the police investigations chief, was fired by the acting minister of internal security, Gideon Ezra, who stepped into the ministry last summer to replace Hanegbi. Forced to suspend himself after being accused of illegal cronyism in ministry appointments, Hanegbi now faces a police investigation.
Mizrahi has been serving under a cloud since October 2003, when then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein called for “serious personal measures” against him, including possible dismissal, because of his alleged misuse of wiretap material. The Supreme Court upheld Rubinstein’s criticisms, but then-police chief Shlomo Aharonishki decided not to fire him and the police minister, Hanegbi, declined to overrule him. Rubinstein has since been named to the high court.
Ironically, it now appears that Hanegbi’s removal from his post may have cleared the way for Mizrahi to be removed from his. It seems the unblemished Ezra was able to carry out an act that Hanegbi hesitated to perform.
Mizrahi’s main transgression was related to the wiretapping of the phone lines in the home of former transportation minister Avigdor Lieberman. The court-ordered wiretapping was part of an investigation into suspected criminal contacts by Lieberman, who was serving at the time as chief of staff to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lieberman never was indicted, but Mizrahi, in what his defenders say was overzealousness in pursuit of high-level corruption — and detractors call political intrigue — apparently transcribed private conversations. Such transcriptions are foridden by law, even when the wiretap itself is authorized.
Rubinstein’s decision to launch an Internal Affairs investigation against Mizrahi was vehemently opposed by then-state prosecutor Edna Arbel, who saw Mizrahi as an important ally in her fight to prosecute high-level figures, including Sharon himself. In a way, Mizrahi’s dismissal is further indication that those who opposed him and Arbel in their proactive approach to corruption have won the battle; the first sign of this was the decision by Rubinstein’s successor, Menachem Mazuz, not to press charges against Sharon in the so-called Greek Island affair, and his subsequent public attack on Arbel and her staff for alleged overzealousness. No wonder that left-wing Knesset member Yossi Sarid, one of Sharon’s most bitter parliamentary foes, crowned Ezra’s decision this week as the “triumph of the corrupt.”
The chasm between what one side perceives as a holy war on corruption, and the other calls the “tyranny of the police and the state prosecutor’s office,” divides not only politicians but also the media. Few were surprised when Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest-circulation daily and a staunch supporter of the Mizrahi-Arbel wing — Yediot broke many of the stories that led to high-level investigations — attacked Ezra for firing Mizrahi, while Ma’ariv, Yediot’s main rival, took the minister’s side. The fact that Mizrahi was behind the investigation and ultimate jailing of Ma’ariv publisher Ofer Nimrodi — ironically, on wiretap charges — only added to the intrigue.
Meanwhile Ezra seemed to be aiming only at pleasing his home-court audience. His decision, which went unopposed — at least publicly — by Police Chief Moshe Karadi, a Hanegbi appointee, was the first victory of the night for Sharon and Hanegbi. The second was Hanegbi’s own election to the chairmanship of the Likud central committee, beating Sharon’s ideological opponent on the disengagement plan, former minister Uzi Landau. After a series of defeats within his party ranks, Sharon finally proved that the rebels against him were not omnipotent, although it is yet to be seen whether Hanegbi’s victory indicated a real change.
The scene was probably greeted with an ironic grin by the most notorious detainee in Israel’s notorious Abu Kabir prison, one Ze’ev Rosenstein. Rosenstein, widely considered Israel’s underworld king, has been in detention for two weeks awaiting a ruling on an extradition request by the United States, where he faces drug trafficking charges. So far, Israeli police have failed to charge him with anything, and he has become a celebrity of sorts in the Israeli media. Indeed, just days after the American request, which finally might rid Israel of its most notorious criminal, it was the country’s most famous crime fighter who was sent packing. Whether Rosenstein will yet face justice in Israel or elsewhere remains to be seen.