‘A tangible, immediate danger’: Ex-police chiefs call to remove Ben Gvir as minister

In letter to PM, 6 former police commissioners and 42 deputy police commissioners warn Israel Police on verge of ‘collapse,’ say far-right minister a ‘central part’ of problem

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene where five people were shot dead in the town of Yafa an-Naseriyye, June 8, 2023. (Fadi Amun/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene where five people were shot dead in the town of Yafa an-Naseriyye, June 8, 2023. (Fadi Amun/Flash90)

Six former police chiefs and over three dozen deputy police commissioners have called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir as national security minister, warning that he poses “a tangible and immediate danger to the security of the State of Israel.”

In a letter to the premier, who heads the right-wing and far-right coalition in which Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party is a key partner, the six ex-police commissioners and 42 deputy commissioners cautioned against the “impending collapse of the Israel Police” and said the minister was a “central part” of the problems plaguing the force, according to the Ynet news site on Friday.

The signatories include former police chiefs Yohanan Danino, who served from 2011 to 2015, Dudi Cohen (2007-2011), Moshe Karadi (2004-2007), Shlomo Aharonishki (2001-2004), Asaf Hefetz (1994-1997), and Rafi Peled (1993-1994).

In their letter, the signatories asked for a meeting with Netanyahu, without the presence of the minister, to “present proposals that would strengthen the police force” and “expand… on the factors that led to this situation,” Ynet reported.

Ben Gvir has repeatedly and publicly quarreled with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who has served in the role since 2020, in the six months since Netanyahu’s new coalition took office, handing the police ministry to a far-right politician who has been harshly critical of the organization. Since taking up the ministry, Ben Gvir has sought to exercise more direct control over police operations and personnel, including a botched attempt to remove the Tel Aviv police commander, and expand his powers, in moves critics say tamper with the independence of the police.

The minister has faced intense criticism over rising terror attacks and a sharp jump in murders in Israel’s Arab communities since late December after running on a platform of keeping citizens safe.

On Thursday, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Jewish extremist Bentzi Gopstein, who has been banned by the Supreme Court from running for the Knesset due to his racist views, has been advising Ben Gvir on police matters and was involved in a number of decisions regarding the upper echelons of the police and operations.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, right, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has also sought to embarrass the police chief by disclosing details of a private conversation pertaining to a persistent and deadly crime wave washing over Arab communities across Israel, a phenomenon Ben Gvir and Shabtai have clashed over.

According to the latest grim tally, 99 members of Israel’s Arab communities were killed so far this year. The latest killing took place earlier Friday when an 18-year-old woman was shot dead in northern Israel.

The killing came less than 24 hours after a deadly mass shooting in the northern Arab town of Yafa an-Naseriyye that killed five people, one of the worst single acts of violence in recent years.

Many Arab community leaders blame the police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence, which includes family feuds, mafia turf wars, and violence against women. The communities have also suffered from years of neglect by state authorities.

The head of a police unit tasked with fighting crime among Arab Israelis, Deputy Commissioner Natan Bozna, resigned on Tuesday. No reason for the departure was given by Bozna or the force, and police did not announce a replacement.

The announcement came a day after Ben Gvir said he would appoint a policy coordinator to help address the rampant bloodshed.

Police at the scene where five people were shot dead in the town of Yafa an-Naseriyye, June 8, 2023. (Fadi Amun/Flash90)

On Friday, Channel 12 reported that Ben Gvir lashed out at Shabtai in a conversation on Thursday before the mass killings, and suggested the police chief was not doing enough to combat the crime wave.

According to unnamed sources familiar with the contents of the conversation cited by Channel 12, the minister and the police chief at first talked about the appointments of senior police officers but Ben Gvir was quick to voice his displeasure: “Instead of focusing on the appointment of your friends, start focusing on crime,” he told Shabtai, according to the sources.

Ben Gvir expressed disappointment in Shabtai’s performance as police chief, and touted the NIS 9 billion he said he helped secure in the latest state budget for the National Security Ministry, which the minister has said would go toward wage increases, recruitment, and the contentious establishment of a national guard.

The establishment of such a force has been decried by critics as potentially handing the far-right politician a “private militia” and has been slowed by Netanyahu.

In his conversation with the police chief reported by Channel 12, the minister demanded more forces on the ground in Arab communities, to which Shabtai is said to have responded that many resources have been poured into securing the anti-government demonstrations since January and fighting an ongoing wave of terror attacks in recent months, and that there “is no 9 billion,” according to the report.

Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov ‘Kobi’ Shabtai addresses a State Control Committee meeting at the Knesset on June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police say the additional budget Ben Gvir has boasted about has not yet materialized.

Further undermining the police, Ben Gvir has also demanded to involve the Shin Bet in the fight against the crime wave in Arab communities, which Shabtai strongly opposes even if the police lack the resources to do more.

Earlier this week, Shabtai told a Knesset committee that the force was unprepared for a “multi-front” outbreak of violence across the country such as the rioting and ethnic clashes that accompanied the 2021 Gaza war, pointing to a lack of “manpower, resources, means and equipment” that he said was preventing police from “rising to the occasion.”

The Shin Bet is generally tasked only with fighting nationalistically motivated terror threats and many Arab leaders oppose the agency’s involvement in non-terror-related matters.

Senior officials in the Shin Bet are reportedly also strongly opposed to the agency’s involvement in the fight against criminal organizations, worrying that it might not even be legal to employ the tools it uses in the fight against Palestinian terror on civilians and that it could be harmful to do so.

In an interview with Channel 13 Thursday night, Karadi said about Ben Gvir that he has “never heard a minister speak so much nonsense in such a short time.”

“He spreads slogans. Bringing in the Shin Bet is populism. The Shin Bet is not a magic word, it is not forces with weapons that enter [Arab cities]. It is an intelligence body, one of the best in the world, which needs to produce intelligence to thwart terrorist attacks,” he said.

Karadi also said he doesn’t see how Ben Gvir would even be “included in the Shin Bet discussions because he doesn’t have security clearance,” Karadi said.

Ben Gvir, 46, grew up in the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach movement, which has been blacklisted in both the US and Israel. He has been arrested and charged dozens of times for his far-right activism, and was convicted for incitement to violence and supporting a terror group for distributing stickers that read “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Kahane was right.” He gained notoriety as a teenager when he was filmed bragging about having stolen the emblem from then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, shortly before Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

“The Shin Bet will not reveal what it knows when Ben Gvir is present in the room,” Karadi claimed.

The former police chief said the first order of business for the police would be “the replacement of the National Security Minister and the appointment of a sober minister with ability, who doesn’t bother with slogans, but with work.”

The police force, said Karadi, needs a major reorganization and a new situational assessment.

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