Why does Ben-Gvir view Israel Police as a branch of gov't? - analysis

It is not a surprise that his view of the police is of an operational-tactical force, which he claims needs to be reformed.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai at a ceremony on the second night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2022.   (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai at a ceremony on the second night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The marathon debates over the Police Law suggest that incoming national security minister MK Itamar Ben-Gvir views the Israel Police chiefly as a tactical-operational branch of government responsible for fighting crime – and does not also view it as an independent body with strategic responsibility, such as to generate civilian adherence to the rule of law, provide equal policing services to all citizens and fight white-collar crime and corruption.

This view is evident first and foremost in the law proposal itself and its accompanying text.

Ben-Gvir's basic supposition as stated in the text is that the division of the police's power between the police commissioner and the government should mirror that of the IDF.

Many speakers throughout the debate argued that this is an erroneous comparison, as the IDF and police have very different purposes. The IDF fights enemies; the police enforce the law of the states' own citizens. The IDF does not have the power to violate the privacy, freedom of speech and movement, and other basic freedoms of its own citizens; the police do, under certain circumstances.

These speakers pointed out that a more appropriate comparison would be between the police and the Shin Bet. Indeed, the Shin Bet Law has a clause that does not appear in the IDF Law which says, "The Shin Bet will act in a statesmanlike manner; it will not be given missions intended to advance partisan-political interests."

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a ceremony on the second night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a ceremony on the second night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Representatives of the Attorney-General's Office proposed to insert this clause into the police law, but Ben-Gvir refused.

The comparison to the IDF and not to the Shin Bet thus suggests that for Ben-Gvir, fighting crime is somewhat akin to fighting external enemies.

Tactical similarities 

Although this is true for some of the police's work and there are indeed similar aspects to both fights, these similarities are largely tactical.

Indeed, while Ben-Gvir's stated goal was to give the minister power to set strategic policy, the examples he gave for such policies were at a borderline tactical level – to battle crimes of extortion in the Negev, to fight the lawlessness on the roads that has developed in parts of the Israeli-Bedouin communities in the Negev and in pockets of Israeli-Arab towns in the North, to defend Jewish farmers in the Galilee or women walking the streets of Beersheba.

He did not mention strategic ideas regarding addressing crime on a broader level, such as addressing the outgoing government's Operation Safe Track, which developed broad strategies to incarcerate members of crime gangs that included a variety of levels of operation, including intelligence, undercover operations, going after the gangs' sources of money, etc.

Perhaps more importantly, Ben-Gvir also did not speak about building trust in the police, especially amongst populations that suffer from over or under policing such as the Ethiopian and Arab-Israeli communities via outreach, education or volunteering – actions that can be considered "soft" police work, but is important and complements the "hard" policing.

Ben Gvir also did not address his authorities over the other agencies that will be under his control, including the Fire and Rescue Service and the Israel Prisons Service.

Checks and balances

The name of the game during the debates was checks and balances – between the minister and the commissioner; between policy and operations; between strategy and tactics, and more.

Ben-Gvir's comments reflected a balance that many viewed as being too skewed in favor of the minister.

Indeed, Ben-Gvir at a number of points during the debates expressed amazement over the idea that the police could be independent. If it acts only according to the law, then the body responsible for interpreting the law – in this case the Attorney General – is in fact the commander of the police, Ben-Gvir claimed.

His premise, which he repeated many times, was that if the police was left to its own vices it would turn the country into a police state – but did not mention that the opposite scenario, in which the police acted directly at the minister's orders, could be considered a police state as well.

Tensions on the Temple Mount

A setting where this balance could have disastrous consequences is the Temple Mount.  

The text accompanying the law proposal mentions a number of Israeli commissions of inquiry that dealt with the balance of power between the police commissioner and the minister – these included the Or Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the October 2000 riots on the Temple Mount, and the Zamir Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the October 1990 riots on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount does not factor in here by chance; it is an issue with diplomatic, external and internal security implications, and has led to much violence in the past. Who is responsible for police policy at the site? And what will happen if Ben-Gvir decides to change the so-called status quo which has applied for decades, which says that the site is a site of prayer for Muslims but only a heritage site for Jews?

Ben-Gvir himself during the debates repeatedly argued that the status quo racially discriminates against Jews. His party member and likely the next chairman of the Knesset's Public Security Committee, MK Zvika Fogel, outdid him by visiting the Temple Mount on Wednesday and publishing a video of himself at the site in which he suggested that he would support changing the status quo.

Indeed, outgoing Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev said during the discussions that incidents in the Temple Mount led him to the only tactical intervention of his tenure, in which he demanded that the police officers use restraint and, for example, do not use live fire or rubber bullets.

Ben-Gvir may attempt to intervene in such a scenario, but in order to practice less restraint, not more. This may be the correct decision on a tactical level – but will Ben-Gvir take into account the broader strategic implications of such a decision?

Ben-Gvir has never led a government ministry or organization of that size. His interactions with the police have been on the criminal side during his youth, and as an attorney defending the rights of Jewish extremists, sometimes against police violence, as a lawyer.

It is not a surprise therefore that his view of the police is of an operational-tactical force, which he claims needs to be reformed. The proper balance, according to a majority of the professional participants in the debate, would be for Ben-Gvir to focus on the larger picture, and intervene in tactics only in extreme situations with strategic implications.

As Bar Lev and many others pointed out, this is exactly how the system works now – and therefore the necessity of the law is questionable in the first place.