What will Itamar Ben-Gvir's new 'private army' look like?

SECURITY AFFAIRS: What will be the impact of Itamar Ben-Gvir’s expanded domain as the minister in charge of police?

 OTZMA YEHUDIT Party head Itamar Ben-Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony last month (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
OTZMA YEHUDIT Party head Itamar Ben-Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony last month
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Early in the morning last Friday, Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir and presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a “jobs appendix” of a yet unsigned full coalition agreement for the incoming government.

The two must like Friday agreements. The Netanyahu-brokered deal that brought Ben-Gvir and running mate MK Bezalel Smotrich to join forces ahead of the election happened on a Friday as well.

The text of the appendix was published on Tuesday. A section of it lays out the responsibilities of the “national security minister,” the head of an enlarged Public Security Ministry, to be led by Ben-Gvir.

What's in store for Israel's first public security minister?

Two clauses stand out. The first states that prior to the swearing-in of the government, the coalition will enact changes in the current law that dictates the police’s responsibilities (known as the Police Directive), so that “the relation between the national security minister and the police commissioner will be like the relationship between the defense minister and the [IDF] chief of staff with the necessary adaptations”, and that the police’s budget would be determined by the national security minister, “like the defense minister’s responsibility for the army’s budget, with the necessary adaptations.”

Ben-Gvir’s reasoning seemed quite simple at face value. The IDF is subordinate to the government, and so should the police. The minister responsible for the police should have the power to dictate policy and control its budget. Otherwise, why have the police subordinate to the minister in the first place? Ben-Gvir argued.

Israel Border Police stop as the siren rings out across Israel to mark Yom Hazikaron, April 28, 2020 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel Border Police stop as the siren rings out across Israel to mark Yom Hazikaron, April 28, 2020 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The issue is not so simple, however, since, unlike the IDF, which fights elements outside of the country, the police deal with the country’s own citizens, including the minister himself, and it, therefore, needs more independence than the military. A senior police officer said to Haaretz that he and some of his peers were concerned that Ben-Gvir would attempt to take de facto control of the police, and some even called on the commissioner to resign in protest.

The second clause that stands out in agreement is about the Border Police’s Judea and Samaria Division, which would be “subordinate to the Israel Police until the organizational restructuring is complete.” Although it isn’t stated directly, this could mean that once the restructuring is complete, it will answer directly to Ben-Gvir. Even if it remains under the police, Ben-Gvir’s deeper control of the police would make him indirectly in charge.

The Border Police’s Judea and Samaria Division is currently a unit that serves on an “extended loan” under the IDF’s Central Command. It has over 10 companies, as well as two sapper units, an elite undercover unit and others.

Dr. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University and Senior Researcher at Reichman University's Institute for Policy and Strategy, pointed out that the Border Police issue, along with another issue in the coalition negotiations - the removal of the Civil Authority, responsible for civilian matters in the West Bank, from the IDF and the defense ministry to the Finance Ministry under Smotrich – represent a theme: taking basic authorities from ministries and moving them to others.

"In every ministry and mainly in ministries that deals with security, whether internal security or national security, it is very important that there be one commander … You cannot split the authority or the principle of command through two commanders," Milshtein said. 

"Putting [the Judea and Samaria Border Police division] personally under Ben-Gvir is wrong. First, because the formal commander of this unit is the chief of police, and second, the one who really gives orders to this unit is the OC Central command. It is really impossible that the head of this unit will obey a minister and not a security or military figure," Milstein said.

"Once again, like the issue of the Border Police, you split the main source of authority. This can create a lot of chaos on the ground and at the political level," he said.

Opposition to this clause of the agreement was stated more forcefully. Two former chiefs of staff and political opponents of Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir made their thoughts known outright.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also accused Netanyahu of creating a “private army” for Ben-Gvir in the West Bank and harming the defense establishment by distributing the responsibility for security in the region to more than one authority. This will make cooperation and coordination difficult, causing “security chaos,” Gantz wrote.

At the Israel Democracy Institute’s Annual Conference on National Security and Democracy on Sunday, Gantz warned of a “disconnect between the Central Command, which is responsible for the territory, and the forces on the ground, who are the ones who actually carry out the different missions.”

He gave an example: “What will happen when [the army] will need reinforcements at a checkpoint? Will OC Central Command put soldiers there because the Border Police are off on a separate mission at Ben-Gvir’s behest?”

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot sang to the same tune. The No. 3 in Gantz’s National Unity Party called the agreement a “sad joke at the expense of Israeli citizens, as part of the negotiation games in which titles are invented for a political need regardless of reality and the needs of the state.”

Assuming that the Border Police’s Judea and Samaria Division remains under the police for the time being, the issue is actually quite similar to a long-standing issue in Israel: the question of who is responsible for the security of 13 towns that are over the Green Line but considered part of the Jerusalem region.

Already in 2016, with the building of the security barrier, Israel decided that control of these towns would move from the IDF to the police. However, the actual transition was delayed repeatedly, as the police, even with the Border Police, did not have sufficient funding, manpower and training to operate under the conditions of these towns, some of which are in the vicinity of hostile Palestinian towns.

The outgoing government decided to carry out the transition once and for all. The towns’ civilian security coordinators, who work as contractors for the Defense Ministry, received a letter in October from the Central Command stating that on January 1 the contracts will not be renewed.

The civilian security coordinators in these towns are in a Catch-22. On the one hand, some said recently on Channel 7 and in Makor Rishon that moving from military to police responsibility indicates a normalization of these towns, and signals that they are likely going to be part of Israel in any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

On the other hand, the police are still not equipped to carry out the mission properly, and the security coordinators and civilians are afraid that their protection will be insufficient.

The Judea and Samaria Border Police units are experienced in operations in the West Bank and have been operating there for years.

But the operation of Border Police units that are not in sync with IDF soldiers could lead to chaos – with two different bodies and two chains of command operating in the same territory.

In other words, instead of a dearth of security, with towns falling between the cracks in the case of the Jerusalem region, in Judea and Samaria – if Ben-Gvir’s demands are actualized – there could be a dangerous “surplus” of security and overlap between the two.

The seam between the IDF and police is delicate

Both cases show that the seam between the IDF and the police is delicate, and changing it requires adequate preparation and execution. The abrupt move of a large body from one authority to another – without strategic planning, without functions to prevent unexpected ramifications on the ground – will likely be anything but an enhancement of national security,

Gantz summed it up appropriately on Facebook. “Netanyahu knows that national security is the sum total of the state’s capabilities – security; military; diplomatic; legal; economic and social.

“Be that as it may, the national security with its components has one person in charge, and he is the prime minister, who is responsible for synchronizing all national efforts. One can only see Netanyahu’s move as an admission that the real prime minister will be Ben-Gvir.”