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.