The Movement of the Quality of Government in Israel has sent a letter to Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara objecting to an expected arrangement in which the incoming government would give Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben-Gvir aspects of the police chief’s powers along with becoming public security minister.
Lawyer Rotem Bavli Dvir of the NGO said the “harm to the independence of the police [as an institution] would constitute an existential threat to democracy and the rule of law.”
Responding to reports that the Likud has agreed to grant Ben-Gvir as minister control over setting various policies, budgets and deployment patterns of the police, the movement warned that any such policy change or legislative change reducing the police chief’s power would be disastrous.
According to the letter, the role of the police is to protect all of the countries’ civilians, which means that it must remain an entirely professional and apolitical organization.
To date, public security ministers have had the power to appoint a new police chief when a serving chief’s term ends, to initiate or block state inquiries and to impact the police’s budget.
In addition, the public security minister can set the tone for police officers when it comes to being more aggressive or showing greater restraint, whether with Palestinian suspects, coronavirus violations or other gray issues.
However, generally, once a new chief is appointed, the police chief has had independence from the public security minister based on the idea that law and order should be beyond political considerations.
This has been especially true since the police are also responsible for pursuing criminal investigations of public officials themselves, some of whom may be aligned with the minister.
The NGO asked Baharav-Miara to instruct officials involved in coalition negotiations that no such transfer of powers would be legal or that it would harm the foundations of democracy.
In response to the letter, the Attorney-General’s Office said generically that it received the letter and is handling it – suggesting that it will take no action until it sees that the incoming government is concretely acting to make a change.
One scenario would include the Knesset passing legislation to alter the basic structure and balance of powers between the public security minister and the police chief, a process that would give Baharav-Miara an opportunity to weigh in.
Frequently, the NGO sends such letters to the Attorney-General’s Office as a precursor to a petition to the High Court of Justice to declare a move or policy illegal or unconstitutional.
The High Court itself often requires NGOs to first try to address their concerns to the attorney-general before seeking court intervention as a last resort.
Besides the direct controversy regarding the police chief’s powers, there are also reports that Ben-Gvir might seek to alter the mission of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency.)
Shin Bet cannot deal with non-terror-related matters
CURRENT LAW largely prohibits the Shin Bet from dealing with any domestic issues that are not explicitly related to terrorism.
This means that the vast majority of its resources are devoted to combating Palestinian terrorism emanating from the West Bank and Gaza, Iranian proxies and spies and other terrorist threats from Hezbollah and Syria.
Only a minority of its resources deal with Jewish-Israeli or Arab-Israeli terrorists, and in cases where a probe finds that the motivation or background to an incident was criminal in nature, the agency turns the case over to the police.
Since 2020, the Shin Bet has been dragged temporarily into handling certain issues relating to tracking the spread of the coronavirus and in combating Arab-Israeli crime syndicates that might have a mix of straight criminal but also ideological terrorist elements.
Ben-Gvir has made it clear he wants the Shin Bet much more involved in handling crime from the Arab-Israeli sector in a broader way.
In addition to general concerns about abuse of powers in using an agency as strong as the Shin Bet to fight regular run-of-the-mill crime, there are concerns that Ben-Gvir might divert resources form the agency’s unit for fighting Jewish terrorism.
Ben-Gvir and many of his counterpart activists have been in a constant battle with the Jewish anti-terrorism unit for years, trying to get it to back off of arrests and other enforcement actions.
Sources close to the Shin Bet said it was refraining from responding to political hearsay and that its focus is the law as set by the Knesset.
Former Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman loudly opposed Shin Bet involvement in coronavirus-related issues, though he relented once the government decided the issue.
Senior police officials expressed their concern over Ben-Gvir’s attempt to take greater control of the police, Ynet reported.
“A minister cannot manage operational matters – the commissioner has priorities. The public security minister’s goal should be cooperation with the police – not control over it,” Ynet quoted one official as saying.
Ben-Gvir said in response at the beginning of a faction meeting on Monday, “I am not coming in order to be a [passive] plant. One cannot [create] change without [receiving] authority.
Former Israel Police commissioner Assaf Hefetz told Ynet that if he were current commissioner Yaakov (Kobi) Shabtai, he would resign.
“In my opinion, Ben-Gvir will not be able to carry out his plan. In order to succeed, he will need to instigate martial law in Israel... If I am commissioner and my independence and the independence of the police were neutralized as the reports indicate, I would quit. I would not remain for a minute if authorities were taken away from me,” Hefetz said.
“The public security minister should be barred from becoming a ‘super-commissioner."Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev
However, current Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev argued on Army Radio on Tuesday that Shabtai should not resign so as not to enable Ben-Gvir to bring in a “yes-man.”
“He [Shabtai] is the responsible adult. He worked for two ministers prior to the incoming one and has the experience,” Bar-Lev said.
Additionally, Bar-Lev told Haaretz on Monday that “changing the Police Law which Ben-Gvir wishes to do could bring about an extreme situation where the commissioner becomes a puppet.”
“The public security minister should be barred from becoming a ‘super-commissioner," Bar-Lev added. “In this situation, there is a serious chance that he will use the police for political purposes. The police’s independence is essential in safeguarding democracy, and damaging its independence damages democracy.”