Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed, whose removal from his position with the Israel Police was announced Thursday by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, reportedly told Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that he was “unfit” to lead the police and that he was making a mistake he would regret, in a call between the two before the decision was made public.
Excerpts of the call were widely reported in Hebrew-language media on Thursday and Friday, citing unnamed persons familiar with the “difficult” exchange.
Eshed was ordered removed from the role in an announcement made Thursday by Ben Gvir, who said the senior commander would be assigned to a new role as head of the police’s Training Department with immediate effect. The announcement came hours after the far-right lawmaker reportedly raged over the police’s restrained conduct on Thursday at major anti-government protests in Tel Aviv and near Ben Gurion International Airport in a “day of disruption.”
Despite the decision to remove his command, Eshed led the response to a terror attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening.
The removal process was frozen on Friday by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who questioned the legality of a decision that is widely seen as politically motivated.
In their call Thursday, Eshed told Shabtai: “If this is your decision at this hour and this time, you are unfit to command the police. You are weak, you have destroyed the police. I am not going to [the] training [department]. You will be hearing from me.”
Amid the brewing saga, six serving deputy commissioners on Friday called for Shabtai’s resignation over his handling of the situation. Senior police sources cited by Haaretz said the police leadership “has lost trust in the commissioner” and that there was no reason to remove him from his role.
But Shabtai “despises him and despised him from day one,” one unnamed source told Haaretz.
Shabtai defended the move to transfer Eshed on Friday, saying in a statement to Channel 12 that he had reached the decision to remove him as Tel Aviv district commander months ago amid dissatisfaction with Eshed’s “conduct both on a personal level in joint discussions and in behavior in the field” but “had to accept” Ben Gvir’s decision on timing Thursday.
In response to the attorney general’s instruction to freeze Eshed’s removal, Shabtai confirmed that the transfer would be frozen, though he insisted the decision was part of a “round of appointments that the Israel Police has long been preparing for” and noted that the timing was at the sole discretion of the police minister.
Shabtai said he regrets how Eshed’s announced removal was handled. “I know it was a mistake,” he told Channel 12.
In their call, Eshel reportedly reminded Shabtai that they had agreed he would hold the Tel Aviv district commander role until the end of the year after which he intended to run for the police commissioner role, public broadcaster Kan reported Friday. “If I don’t get it, I’ll go home,” Eshed told Shabtai, according to the report, which also said the senior cop was surprised and “hurt” by the move Thursday.
The six deputy commanders who called for Shabtai to step down said he had “failed” in his role as police chief on Thursday and therefore “must resign,” Channel 12 reported.
A similar call was issued earlier Friday by a group of former Israel Police commissioners who called on Shabtai to resign over the role he played in Eshed’s removal.
In a letter, the former top cops wrote that they were “shocked” by Shabtai’s actions, which they called a “low point in the history of the Israel Police,” charging that he had “lost the moral and ethical right to continue” to lead.
Among the signatories were former commissioners Roni Alsheich, Moshe Karadi, Shlomo Aharonishki, Assaf Hefetz and Rafi Peled.
“You cooperated with a convicted criminal in order to turn the police into a private militia, and in order to satisfy the political whims of an appointed minister,” they wrote in reference to Ben Gvir, accusing Shabtai of involvement in “the purge of a commander with a backbone.”
Before entering office, Ben Gvir was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group.
In his short tenure so far as police minister, Ben Gvir has repeatedly clashed with the Israel Police, often criticizing the force for not taking a harsher stance against demonstrators who, for months, have taken to the streets to protest against the government’s push to radically overhaul the judiciary, weaken the powers of the High Court of Justice, and assert political control over judicial appointments.
The protests have gained pace over the past nine weeks, as opponents say the proposals, led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have charged it is a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.
Last month, Ben Gvir criticized officers after they didn’t use force to disperse anti-government protestors in Jerusalem. In January, Ben Gvir urged police to crack down on demonstrators who block roads, use water cannons to disperse them, and arrest them more liberally.
Last week, police came under criticism for using a heavier hand with protesters at a major rally in Tel Aviv for the first time since the mass demonstrations began, winning praise by Ben Gvir for the police’s severe response. The more aggressive tactics led to a number of injuries to protesters, and probes into police conduct.
Notably, Eshed was on vacation during the March 1 protests in Tel Aviv. His deputy oversaw those rallies.
Ben Gvir claimed on Thursday that Eshed’s transfer was “pre-planned” and dismissed Baharav-Miara’s instruction to freeze the removal, calling her “a leftist attorney general, representing the previous regime, who has a patently political agenda.”
He also asserted that her decision to freeze Eshed’s removal was proof of the need for the Netanyahu government’s proposal to neuter the judiciary, which includes a bid to curtail the attorney general’s power to affect policy.
On Friday, Hebrew-language media reported that Ben Gvir said the “protocols from the discussions [on reshuffling police appointments]” could be presented to show the “consistent rivalry between the commission and Eshed.”
Ben Gvir also said he had previously warned the Tel Aviv district commander that he was not satisfied with his work. “A few weeks ago, in a personal interview, District Commander Eshed heard my criticism of his conduct. In that meeting, he told me that he aspires to advance to the position of commissioner. I told him that all options were on the table.”
On Thursday, Ben Gvir said he repeated the criticism to Eshed, “and then the commissioner informed him of the decision” to transfer him elsewhere, he claimed.