There have been past instances where political officials called to send the Shin Bet after Israeli-Arab criminals and the agency demurred or took a few small pro forma actions with zero enthusiasm.
Not this time.
Following the murder of a local council political candidate in Abu Snan on Tuesday night and a Tira civil servant’s assassination on Monday evening, the Shin Bet is wholeheartedly committed to cracking down on those who were involved, and anyone who might get similar ideas.
This is a radical shift. The agency’s traditional mission is to combat foreign terror from the West Bank and Gaza, from Lebanon, from Iran, from ISIS, and in small amounts from the Israeli-Arab or Jewish communities.
That has meant that gang killings, robberies, and drug smuggling, even in much higher numbers in recent years, were work for the police, not the Shin Bet.
What has changed to bring in the Shin Bet this time?
What changed the elite homeland security intelligence body’s view from banging on the table to stay out of domestic issues to moving in a serious way in confronting Israeli-Arab criminal organizations?
It was the fact that these two attacks were on political officials or candidates.
According to the Shin Bet, part of its core mission has always been to protect bedrock pieces of the state’s democratic machinery to ensure that hostile actors cannot rip apart the country’s values.
This is part of why the Shin Bet functions as the country’s secret service, protecting the prime minister and other key figures.
In the past, when Israeli-Arab criminal groups went on killing sprees, though the victims were innocents, they were not seen as symbols of democratic rule and order.
Now, the Shin Bet believes that these organizations are targeting symbols of democracy itself, which is an attack on the country’s basic national security and democratic character.
From that perspective, just as the Shin Bet helps secure Israel’s election from foreign interference, it is ready to secure Israeli-Arab figures who embody democratic rule in their cities and villages and to take down groups who cross the line into killing such figures.
AG Baharav-Miara isn't opposed like previous times
This is also why the Shin Bet and the politicians are not getting any pushback this time from Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara.
In the past, the political level was viewed by Baharav-Miara as trying to call in the Shin Bet in a populist move to spin responsibility away from themselves for decades of failing to address chronic problems in unemployment and education in the Israeli-Arab sector.
The agency has drone-spying and human spying capabilities, hacking telephone and email capabilities, tracking capabilities, and interrogation and detention tools that the police do not have which it uses to crack tough terror cases.
These were considered tools that were too blunt and too prone to abuse to use domestically, other than in the most clear situations where someone was acting as a terrorist with a nationalist ideology.
Also, in the past, Baharav-Miara was against bringing in the Shin Bet because not only would the agency not solve the underlying issues, but it was also viewed as a slippery slope that could lead to using the agency’s draconian powers for domestic political purposes.
The next question is might the Shin Bet cross the line into that slippery slope even if it has the best of intentions?
Right now, the agency’s view is that it will only deal with issues in the investigation of the political murders that relate to symbols and elements of democratic rule.
If the investigation has a mix of trends challenging democratic rule and some that are regular criminal undertakings, the standard criminal issues will still be handled by the police.
But can such a bright line really be drawn? When individual criminals have multiple motivations, where do you draw the line?
This challenge became very clear during the May 2021 Gaza War when a number of Israeli-Arab criminal groups engaged in actions that were designed to support Hamas.
It caught the country off guard, was more than the police could handle, and the Shin Bet did get involved in aspects of addressing the issue.
But the agency still did not use all of its powers, and functioned more in ancillary, advisory and targeted missions role, leaving the police still as the general contractor dealing with public order problems.
In an era when Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich and other members of his party are blocking or delaying funding for some Israeli-Arab communities under highly controversial circumstances, the Shin Bet will have to be doubly careful that it is not viewed as being used in any sort of political fashion.
That is to say, most government experts and reports who have studied the issue have argued that the Israeli-Arab sector has been badly underfunded and ignored by successive governments for decades, even before Msotrich tried to slow the existing funding.
Next, the agency was brought into the domestic realm in 2020 in a big way to track COVID-19 infected persons, in one of the most questionable moves of that era.
Back then, the High Court of Justice and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee mostly stayed out of the agency’s way for an extended period.
Since then the bar for involving the Shin Bet in domestic issues has dropped lower multiple times.
If the Shin Bet does cross the line, it is unclear, especially with the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers under unprecedented pressure, who would have the power to put it back in its place.