Legal experts, police commissioner push back against Ben-Gvir law

The law, providing expanded authority to the national security minister, will give Ben-Gvir control of the police's budget, as well as greater control of its modes of operation.

 MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attend an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attend an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Knesset legal advisers, deputy attorneys-general, soon-to-be opposition MKs and Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai on Wednesday criticized incoming National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s proposal to amend the Police Law by adding a number of clauses that regulate relations between the minister and the police commissioner.

The amendment would grant the national security minister greater control over police budgets, as well as more involvement in police priorities and “policy issues” regarding “investigations, treatment of cases and indictments.”

Ben-Gvir conditioned his entry into the government and coalition on the law passing.

Ben-Gvir opened the debate in the Knesset committee that was formed ad hoc to fast-track the amendment to the law. The proposed change represented a “historic amendment” and is a “necessity in every democratic country,” he said.

Ben-Gvir accused outgoing Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev of failing to stop terrorist attacks and of not understanding the need to “protect the police officers.”

Shabtai said the public security minister already has broad authority over his ministry, and changing the law was unnecessary and unclear.

“This proposal dramatically affects the police’s character and public trust,” he said. “I am not against changes... [but] there needs to be in-depth debate over the effects of the law, and change it only where necessary.”

Shabtai’s opposition to the proposal was dramatic. Last week, he was accused of bending to Ben-Gvir’s will when he skipped an appointment ceremony to which the Otzma Yehudit head was opposed and instead attended Ben-Gvir’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Deputy Attorney-General Amit Merari said the proposed law did not strike a proper balance between the minister’s authorities and law enforcement’s professional independence, and it could potentially cause “real and severe” damage to the State of Israel’s democratic rule.

Deputy Knesset Legal Adviser Miri Frankel-Shor said while there was room to amend the Police Law, the amendments required serious discussion. The current proposal’s clauses regarding the minister’s ability to direct policy were acceptable per se, but they needed to be balanced by a clause that guarantees the police’s independence, she said.

Bar Lev said he already had full authority to set policy, as the minister has an operations secretariat that involves itself in operational policy when necessary. Ben-Gvir’s proposed law would give the minister unlimited authority at the expense of the police commissioner, he said.

Bar Lev described events that occurred last May during the days ahead of Operation Guardian of the Walls, when he involved himself in tactical issues relating to the Temple Mount, but he needed the legal adviser’s intervention to give him the authority to do so. The case in question was a rare example in which he needed to become involved due to the site’s sensitivity, he said, and after a short delay, he was given the green light to do so, showing that he had all the authority he needed.

Bar Lev admitted that the information he had divulged was classified, but he justified it by saying he was quoting from a report that he himself wrote.

Ben-Gvir, however, used the case in question to argue that Bar Lev should not have needed to turn to legal advisers in the first place, adding that the revised law would ensure this.

Bar Lev’s Labor Party later said in a statement: “Itamar Ben-Gvir had a temper tantrum, attacking Minister Omer Bar Lev, former Israel Police commissioners and whoever else he could. The leader of the Israeli Fascist Party is terrified by the thought that he will be appointed, and we will see that the emperor has no clothes, save for his cheap populism, and that there’s nothing behind his promises.”

The soon-to-be opposition MKs continued throughout the debate to point out problematic aspects of the proposed law.

They said the amendment would grant unprecedented power to the national security minister, who already controls policy and does not and should not become involved with operational matters; that it constituted a fundamental change to the police’s role in society and therefore demanded a full, thorough legislative process; and that the only reason the coalition wanted it passed before the government is sworn in is because they do not believe Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu will keep his word and enable them to pass it afterward.

The Knesset debate, which began at noon on Wednesday, was still ongoing at press time on Wednesday evening. It was not yet clear when the proposed amendment to the law would reach the Knesset floor for a first reading.

The proposed amendment is one of four laws that the incoming coalition wants to pass before Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires next Wednesday.

Earlier on Wednesday, former police commissioner Roni Alsheich told Yediot Aharonot the proposed law would harm personal safety because it will devastate public trust in the police and lead to the formation of militias and, eventually, anarchy.

In the interview, which is to be published in full on Friday, Alsheich said if the proposed law had passed during his tenure, he would have resigned in protest.

“I would not agree to be the commissioner of a political body,” said Alsheich, who also served as the deputy director of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). “I know what the law says, and the danger is very simple. I can guarantee that the result for personal security will be the opposite.”

“I am anxious for the fate of the State of Israel,” he said. “I am raising grandchildren here. I want them to go to the mall and drive the roads in peace, and that is going to be affected. When the law-enforcement system is subject to external political interference, then my trust and that of many of the citizens of the State of Israel will drop dramatically, and when it drops, we will encounter anarchy.

“I want the public to know that when law enforcement is in the hands of a political entity, the result will be more violence and less personal security, but this time on a different scale. Independent militias that no one authorized will arise and start guarding, and when they start shooting suspected criminals, we’ll see what will happen to the police. That’s where we’re going.”

A growing rift with Arab and Bedouin communities

Alsheich said instead of Ben-Gvir creating bridges with the Arabs Bedouins to fight rampant crime within their communities, he has designated all of them as enemies.

“Let’s say I am now a Bedouin in the Negev,” he said. “What does the Bedouin understand? That the police came to serve him or to fight him? Is it possible to fight crime, and not terrorism, without the cooperation of the population in which the crime takes place? If you announce that you will ‘show them who's boss,’ it means that you are not coming to serve the population of the Negev but that you are marking it as one that must be fought against. It cannot be interpreted otherwise.”

In response, Ben-Gvir said in a statement: “It’s a shame that they didn’t pass the Police Law during [Alsheich’s] time. He would have resigned, and we would have saved the tremendous damage he caused to the police during his tenure. The damage caused by his neglect of public security is evident to this day, and he is trying to cover up his failure with attacks in the media instead of expressing remorse.

“We have not forgotten that Alsheich spied on citizens, was involved in frame-ups, was a failed commissioner and most importantly, he did not take care of security in the streets. The amendment to the Police Law allows the minister to set the policy, the principles and the rules. These things did not exist during Alsheich’s time, and that was why the police looked the way it did.”

“Public servant is not a derogatory term, but Alsheich, who failed in his role as commissioner, invented the Netanyahu investigations and became a serial leaker of police investigations, put the entire country into a spiral of five election systems and violated human rights. He is the last one who can talk about the police,” Ben-Gvir said.

Alsheich was appointed police commissioner by Netanyahu, but he was harshly criticized during his tenure and after it for opening investigations into accusations of bribery, fraud and breach and trust, for which Netanyahu is currently standing trial.