Will Ben-Gvir as public security minister be dangerous for Israel? - editorial

Outgoing Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev said Itamar Ben-Gvir would effectively turn the police commissioner into a puppet.

 MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party surrouned visits in Beit Orot, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of At-Tur, October 13, 2022. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party surrouned visits in Beit Orot, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of At-Tur, October 13, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Under an agreement reached on Sunday between Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new Netanyahu government will pass legislation granting the Public Security Ministry under Ben-Gvir sweeping powers to set future policy for the Israel Police. This is a dangerous development.

According to reports, Ben-Gvir not only wants to usurp the police commissioner’s policy-setting powers; he also wants full control over the allocation of the police budget and the deployment of police forces in certain areas.

Police sources and officials in the Public Security Ministry are warning that Ben-Gvir’s demands are unacceptable. “A minister cannot be in charge of operational goals of the police,” one unnamed official was quoted as saying. “The goal of the public security minister must be cooperation with the police – and not control over it.”

Outgoing Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev put it more bluntly, saying Ben-Gvir would effectively turn the police commissioner into a puppet. “The public security minister must not become a ‘super police commissioner’ because there is a serious concern that he will use the police for his own political purposes,” Bar Lev said. “The independence of the police force is a fundamental issue in maintaining democracy.”

Former commissioner Assaf Hefetz said that while he doesn’t believe Ben-Gvir will ultimately succeed in implementing his plan, “If I were the commissioner and they were neutralizing my authority over the police as has been published, I would quit.”

 Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“The public security minister must not become a ‘super police commissioner’ because there is a serious concern that he will use the police for his own political purposes,”

Outgoing Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev

Ben-Gvir himself spoke about the issue at the opening of his party’s faction meeting, saying, “I’m not here to be a plant. You can’t make changes without powers. I’ve had a parade of senior police officers with high ranks telling me that they are waiting for Itamar Ben-Gvir to be public security minister. I am Itamar Ben-Gvir, not a plant.” 

Under current law, the police are not subordinate to the public security minister, who only has limited powers, such as the appointment and dismissal of senior police officers. According to Israel Police protocol, “The commissioner will supervise the Israel Police, its management arrangements and implementation, and will be responsible for supervising the expenditures entailed in this and its supplies.” What Ben-Gvir wants, according to sources, is to become the de facto commissioner himself, making him in charge of every aspect of police policy, including operational decisions.

The current commissioner, Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai, has declined comment, as has the Israel Police Spokesperson’s Unit. Ben-Gvir’s proposed change would clearly undermine the independence of both the police force and the commissioner himself, allowing him to decide how the police should operate on the ground. 

Most perturbing is that under the new legislation, Ben-Gvir could try to involve himself in police investigations, thus turning the police into a political entity.

One area in which this could be especially problematic is the activities of Lahav 433, the police’s elite crime-fighting unit that investigates alleged corruption on both national and municipal levels. According to police sources, Ben-Gvir plans to mobilize police working for Lahav 433 into other areas – such as safeguarding settlements and outposts in the West Bank or fighting the rise in Arab crime to restore law and order in the Negev and Galilee.

Could this set a problematic precedent?

While this sounds like a laudable goal, it would set a problematic precedent. Former public security ministers, including Gilad Erdan (Likud), also sought control over police policy and budget but failed to achieve their goals after encountering fierce opposition from police commissioners, the police force and the political echelon.

One official in the Public Security Ministry was quoted by Ynet as giving this example: “Imagine that the public security minister is aware of intelligence information against a good friend of his. It would not be appropriate for the minister to be part of the decision-making process of the police from a professional point of view.”

The official stressed that the public security minister’s role is to work with the police force and not assert authority over it. 

For the sake of the police force and the rule of law in a democratic country, we urge the powers that be in the new government, and especially the prime minister, to reconsider any deal in which Ben-Gvir is given such sweeping powers.