The Case for Abolishing Police Commissioners’ Extendable Terms in Israel

The investigations into corruption allegations against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have received massive attention from the media in Israel and around the world ever since they began in late 2016. In one of the most recent developments, last September Israel’s Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, officially announced his decision not to extend the three-year term of the current head of the Israeli Police, Commissioner Roni Alsheich, by an additional year. Therefore, Alsheich is expected to complete his tenure at the end of this year. Erdan ascribed his decision not to extend Alsheich’s tenure to “differences of opinion and divergent approaches on various issues, some of them substantial and weighty, and which had a significant impact on the public’s trust in the police.” Opposition members and commentators, however, claimed that this decision was driven by the fact that Alsheich has been (or has been perceived as) leading the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to the critics, Erdan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, was acting to please influential senior members of the Likud, as well as Netanyahu himself – an allegation that Erdan denied.

The facts of this particular case are murky. There is no solid evidence to show that Erdan’s decision not to extend Alsheich’s term was related to the latter’s involvement in the Prime Minister’s corruption probe. (In fact, even critics of Erdan’s decision do not seem to claim that Alsheich’s commissionership was flawless.) Nevertheless, this incident highlights a larger institutional flaw in Israel’s current practice of appointing police commissioners for three years with the option for extension.

Israeli law does not actually specify a fixed length for a police commissioner’s term, nor does it mention anything about the potential for term extension. In fact, Israel’s Police Ordinance says only that the commissioner is to be appointed by the government, per the recommendation of the Minister of Public Security. However, over the years it has become an accepted practice (though not without exceptions) that the police commissioner is appointed for a term of three years, and toward the conclusion of that term, the Minister of Public Security decides whether to recommend that the government extend the commissioner’s term by approximately one additional year. This practice should be abolished. Instead, the law should be amended such that the commissioner would be appointed for a fixed, non-extendable term (except in certain emergency situations) – a proposal that has been advocated by commentators and some members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but so far has gone nowhere.

There are three strong arguments, from the perspective of anticorruption policy, for giving the police commissioner a fixed non-extendable term (at this point, regardless of its exact duration):

  • Extendable terms may compromise the police commissioner’s professional discretion: The police commissioner’s professional discretion could be affected by her desire to extend her original term. Given that such an extension hinges on the Minister of Public Security’s positive recommendation and the government’s approval, the commissioner might (consciously or unconsciously) try to avoid taking steps that potentially conflict with ministers’ interests, or might make decisions with these interests in mind. More specifically, there is a risk that such considerations would distort the commissioner’s handling of investigations into corruption by ministers and other government officials. Justified or not, Erdan’s decision not to extend Alsheich’s term might be interpreted as a warning by the next appointed commissioner. Moreover, even a police commissioner willing to “sacrifice” her potential fourth year of service for the sake of professionalism might still be influenced by concerns about her reputation. After all, a Minister of Public Security who decides not to extend the police commissioner’s term due to a desire to impede an anticorruption investigation would never admit that was the reason; rather the Minister would likely justify the decision by stating that the police commissioner’s work has been unsatisfactory, exactly as Erdan did in Alsheich’s case. A commissioner concerned about her legacy and professional future has an interest in preventing this sort of blot on her reputation.
  • Extendable terms may harm public trust in the police and the government: It is nearly impossible for the public to assess whether the decision not to extend a police commissioner’s term was motivated by legitimate considerations, which means the decision not to extend a commissioner’s term, even if justified, might lead many citizens to ascribe illegitimate motives to the Minister’s decision on whether to recommend extension. Likewise, if a corruption investigation does not ultimately result in a recommendation for prosecution, the public might suspect that the commissioner’s desire to extend her term may have played a role, even if it didn’t. Therefore, the current practice of giving the government the option of extending the commissioner’s term might harm public trust in the government and the police.
  • Extendable terms may negatively affect the police’s stability, predictability, and long-term plans: It is not ideal for the police force to operate under uncertainty regarding its leader’s duration of service. As corruption investigations are often complex and expensive, the ability of the police to devise a long-term investigation plan is curtailed when it is unknown how long the commissioner, who is likely to be personally involved in sensitive investigations, will stay in office. Such instability can also impede the police force’s ability to adopt institutional reforms, some of which are vital for fighting corruption within the police force itself.

Some may propose that instead of abolishing the current system of extendable terms, there should be an “automatic” extension of terms of police commissioners who are involved with investigations which put the Minister of Public Security or other ministers in a situation of conflict of interest. But such a proposal has its disadvantages: It would require extending the term of a police commissioner who had been doing a poor job, and would give sitting commissioners dangerous incentives to initiate unwarranted investigations against public officials. (Notably, the Israel Police’s history of corruption investigations is not free of alleged overzealousness.)

The best argument for preserving extendable terms is that they encourage better performance from the police commissioner during the first three years of service. That may be so, but police commissioners will typically have sufficiently strong reasons, including especially reputational concerns, to strive for high standards of professionalism. The benefits associated with the “carrot” of an extra year in office are not worth the risk that this incentive may be abused to discourage serious, sustained police investigations into high-level government corruption.

While my argument here focuses on Israel, I suspect that the arguments for fixed, non-extendable terms may also be applicable in other contexts. Institutional reformers around the world should be sensitive to the risks associated with extendable terms, and when possible, strive to replace them with fixed non-extendable terms.

9 thoughts on “The Case for Abolishing Police Commissioners’ Extendable Terms in Israel

  1. Guy, thank you for pointing out an interesting issue that seems to have flown under the radar in the media. Your reasons for a fixed, non-extendable term are persuasive. I wonder if in your research you’ve come across the intent for having the extendable term. You debunk the better performance rationale—but has a more compelling reason ever been articulated by the government in support of the extendable term? I understand the logic of ensuring that leadership stays on during lengthy investigations, but it seems that this rationale might not be enough to tip the scale if the Police Commissioner is not in higher-ups’ good graces.

    • I agree with Vicky on both points — great post, and I’m curious to learn more about the potential justifications for the current system.

      I have a somewhat half-baked theory. Maybe the extendable term arrangement improves prosecutorial performance by creating the possibility of being publicly recognized for doing a good job. In other words, the “carrot” isn’t just another year of work; it’s public recognition.

      At the risk of trivializing an important issue — I remember that my boss at my previous job always recommended that entry-level employees request periodic formal performance reviews because (i) the entry-level employees might get some good advice, but equally importantly, (ii) the performance review itself would force the supervisor to reflect on the entry-level employee’s achievements to date. Maybe a similar benefit accrues to the Israeli Police Commissioner under the current system?

    • Thank you for your comments Vicky and Kevin.

      Unfortunately, I can only speculate as to the original reason behind the adoption of the current Israeli practice of police commissioners’ extendable terms. I think, as you have both implied, that the original intent was encouraging better performance from police commissioners during their first three years of service.

      I agree with Kevin that the extension itself may not be desired by police commissioners solely for the additional year of service, but also because such extension signifies to the public that the police commissioner’s work was conducted to a high standard – a recognition that every police commissioner would be happy to receive. As I mentioned in my post, “even a police commissioner willing to ‘sacrifice’ her potential fourth year of service for the sake of professionalism might still be influenced by concerns about her reputation.”

  2. I feel like I start to sound like a broken record, but I just think this situation is such a good proof for the advantages of having clear measurements for what is a successful anti-corruption agency (or any law enforcement agency, for that matter). If there is no strategy with clear measurable criteria, it is impossible to have an informed conversation about how good the head of the agency is in the end – and whether or not that person should be fired after the term, or if the term should be extended, or if the person should be fired before the term even ends. Thus, the conversation can easily become politicized. If it would be clear from the start how we measure the success of the work of the head of an agency, the conversation could be easily turned into a conversation about facts and figures, thus saving it from politics.

    • Thank you for this interesting observation, Ruta (and for what it’s worth, you do not sound at all like a broken record). I believe that even if we had clear measures for what constitutes a good police commissioner, it would still be extremely difficult to implement them and evaluate the performance of police commissioners.

  3. Guy, thanks for this! One quick clarifying question: I’m assuming that because the Minister of Public Security is responsible for making the decision on whether to extend the Police Commissioner’s term, the Minister of Public Security, therefore, is also responsible initially appointing the Police Commissioner. Additionally, after a quick Google search, I’ve also deduced that Minister of Public Security is a position that is appointed by the Israeli Prime Minister. Thus, given that the Israeli Prime Minister has maximum-length term length of four years, is it possible that this “3+1” system is somehow related to (or meant to run parallel to) Prime Minister’s terms? I know there are not limits on the number of terms for which a Prime Minister can serve in Israel (unlike in the US), but I can’t help but think that in a scenario in which, in one year’s time, there could be an entirely new Prime-Minister administration, it would be hard to justify NOT renewing a Commissioner’s term. Indeed, it seems unlikely that one could have a particularly effective or impactful tenure over the course of just one year.

    • Thank you for this comment, Ross.

      Your first assumption is right: according to Israel’s Police Ordinance, the police commissioner is to be appointed by the government, per the recommendation of the Minister of Public Security. (By the way, if you are interested in the latest news regarding the appointment of the next police commissioner, you may want to read this article: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-would-be-police-chief-withdraws-candidacy-1.6721912.)

      As for your second question: the term of the Israeli government (or of the Israeli Prime Minister) and the term of the police commissioner are independent of and do not affect each other. Despite the fact that the police commissioner is appointed by the government, the commissioner is a non-political administrator and civil servant. Therefore, the police commissioner is to stay in office to complete her term even if a new Prime Minister is sworn in.

  4. Thanks for this interesting post, Guy! As I was reading, I was curious to know, how often is it that a Police Commissioner’s term is extended? Was Alsheich’s non-extension very out of the ordinary? Are there other cases of non-extensions that we can look at to see what types of behavior have been seen as reasons to not extend a commissionership?

    I only ask because I wonder to what extent some of the concerns that you bring up in this post can be alleviated by having strict guidelines for what can lead to a non-extension (almost like giving these Commissioners “for cause” employment protection). As Ruta notes above, by having clear metrics of success or failure, you could mitigate some of the public trust issues. That being said, it would probably be much simpler to use your solution of fixed non-extendable terms – just some food for thought in case this practice is too engrained to change. Perhaps this could be a compromise solution?

    • Thanks for your interesting comment, Cristina.

      Among the five police commissioners who held the office since 2001 (excluding interim police commissioners), Alsheich was the first police commissioner for whom the Minister of Public Security decided not to recommend that the government extend his term: The terms of two of the police commissioners (Shlomo Aharonishki and Yohanan Danino) were extended by approximately one year, while one police commissioner (Dudi Cohen) was unusually appointed from the outset for a term of four years. Another police commissioner (Moshe Karadi) decided to resign before completing his three-year term, following the negative conclusions of a government-appointed committee that had investigated police conduct concerning a certain affair (https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3366635,00.html).

      As I wrote in response to Ruta’s comment, I think that it would be very difficult to implement measures defining a good police commissioner (even if such measures were somehow created) and to evaluate in a truly objective way – not prone to any kind of manipulation – the performance of police commissioners. Therefore, I do not believe that such measures would constitute a good solution – definitely not one that should be substituted for the abolishment of the practice of police commissioners’ extendable terms.

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