Given the multitude of rifts in Israeli society, the system of coalition regimes has been an unavoidable constraint since the establishment of Israel’s democracy. Yet, a coalition regime gives excessive power to the executive, because of the inherent ability to control the legislative authority by its majority.
Actually, the government is the pivot of every legislative process. Thus, the executive authority which in democracy should be subject to the law is actually controlling the law.
If the legislature is controlled by the executive authority, then it can do whatever it wants. The law forbids a course of action? No problem – with the help of a Knesset majority and “factional discipline” it can be changed. In days, the illegal becomes legal.
Illegal can be made legal
Given that, and in the absence of a constitution, all the checks and balances in the Israeli system were based on various “gatekeepers,” including the authority of the legal advisers, the independence of the national police, the authority of the supreme court and so on.
Formally, the intervention of the court in the legislative process is an intervention in the parliament. In practice, it is a restraint of the executive authority.
The current legal reform aims to systematically eliminate those checks and balances, which could leave all the power in the hands of the executive authority. Yes, it should be named a “regimental revolution.”
The legal reform is a revolution
One of the most alarming examples of this is the “Ben-Gvir law,” named after the new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and designed to give a politician an alarming amount of authority over the police. Ben-Gvir renamed the ministry responsible for the police – the public security Ministry is now the national security Ministry – and eliminated the full independence of the police in the law enforcement processes.
In the final draft of the bill approved in December, Ben-Gvir was given the power to outline operational and investigative police policy. Owing to his success in the latest election following his promise to “restore governance,” Ben-Gvir pledges to use his newfound powers to revive a sense of personal security that has been undermined in recent years – especially following the Arab-Jewish riots in 2021 – by over-policing Arab citizens.
Instead of bringing the best minds in criminology to the table, a law that drastically changes the nature of policing is being drawn up hurriedly, with no real experts leading the process. As a former Israel police chief, I’m here to warn that there will be a steep price to pay down the road.
First of all, crime being prevalent within minority communities is not an issue unique to Israel – and criminology has a lot to say about what works and what doesn’t. Not all popular claims are scientifically based. Take the example of the popular appeal for intensifying punishment as a “magical” deterrence tool, despite countless studies showing that what actually increases deterrence is the speed and certainty of punishment, much less its severity.
I AM not a criminologist, nor did I grow up within the police force. Studying criminology was more like a hobby for me. But when I was appointed chief of the Israel Police, I opened up the organization to academic research, in an effort to bring substantial value to the police force and the citizens it serves.
This afforded me the privilege of leading revolutionary policing reforms firmly based on criminology findings. The reforms – accompanied by a computer-based system that we created to analyze the success levels of the various policing practices – produced impressive results in crime reduction.
The Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem then studied the reforms and found them to be very suitable for policing in Arab society – which had been begging for policing for over two decades.
After retiring, as a result of my achievements, I was awarded the Presidential Prize by the Israeli Criminology Society for evidence-based policing. After publishing the academic findings in professional journals and books, I also received the honor of being inducted into the Evidence-Based Policing Hall of Fame at George Mason University in Virginia. This gave me the satisfaction of knowing that the revolutionary policing reforms implemented by me had been effective and my professional opinion was proven to have been correct.
In 2016, the government approved a six-year plan for establishing police stations in Arab society with a significant budget for the years 2017-2018. Unfortunately, at the end of my term in 2018, less than two years in, the plan was cut short and nearly reversed due to steep police budget cuts. Two years without a commissioner and without a relevant budget contributed significantly to the violent events of 2021.
Ben-Gvir now demands that he be given the same power over the chief of police as the minister of defense has over the chief of staff; I must speak out against the new national security minister, his eponymous law, and the risks it poses to democratic policing.
FOR ANYONE who isn’t an expert on the structure of Israel’s government or police, giving the national security minister this amount of power over the police may sound logical. But while the army is tasked with fighting a national enemy and can thus be led by the political echelons, the police force – which serves all the citizens – should be apolitical. Allowing for its enforcement strategies to be politicized, or to be changed with each election is extremely dangerous regarding the trust in the police.
Ben-Gvir’s promise to restore governance by over-policing Arab citizens not only jeopardizes the image of the police within society, but could drive the Arabs to see themselves as “preferred objects of enforcement” – who not only will never enlist or volunteer in the police, but also feel little need to cooperate with the police.
The result will be a decrease in crime reporting, less effective policing, and the force losing its legitimacy, and with it, its ability to strengthen the norm of complying with the law. The police will gradually be labeled as the “enemy” of the public, and criminals will become objects of juvenile admiration.
By concentrating on law enforcement instead of crime prevention, the police will fail in their duty to protect all citizens of the country.
Preventing crime needs the cooperation of the community. If the community sees you as an enemy, there is no incentive to cooperate with the police. Using the police only for direct enforcement purposes proves a lack of understanding of the real potential of the police to reduce crime.
Following the tragic terror attacks in Jerusalem last month, Ben-Gvir demonstrated once again his misunderstanding of the duty of the police, and the dangerous road on which he’s leading the organization.
After one of the terror attacks in Jerusalem, he announced that the demolition of illegal homes in Jerusalem would be expedited, provoking residents of the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood to protest in a disorderly fashion. They saw his declaration as collective punishment against them.
House demolitions are not the police’s job. At most, the police can be asked by the municipality to provide security to those carrying out the demolitions. By declaring a “house demolition campaign” following a terror attack, Ben-Gvir is turning the municipality into the enemy of those it is mandated to serve.
There are many more prices to pay for over-policing a particular community. Other communities will suffer from under-policing. Violence and property crime will rise, and as usually happens in such scenarios, “private” independent neighborhood guards will start to spring up.
These local militias that seem to be well-intentioned, will find themselves confronting the criminals, without any training or authority. If one of them uses his weapon against a person suspected of being a criminal, he will find himself in a police interrogation room, thus causing public faith in the police within that community to vanish forever.
National security is the responsibility of the prime minister. It contains so many areas like economic sustainability, social resilience and much more.
Viewing national security through such a narrow prism is, unfortunately, more evidence of the limited understanding of the role of the police.
The writer was commissioner of the Israel Police from 2015-2018.