As cabinet plans to discuss police response to protests, AG warns against interference

Ministers assail Gali Baharav-Miara after she tells PM it’s ‘neither possible or proper’ to deliberate specific policing actions at upcoming meeting

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at the University of Haifa, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/ Flash90/ File)
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at the University of Haifa, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/ Flash90/ File)

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Thursday warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against any political interference in the police’s response to mass demonstrations over his government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary, as senior coalition figures have increasingly urged law enforcement to deal more forcefully with protesters.

In a letter to Netanyahu, Baharav-Miara said she received a document from cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs indicating that at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, ministers intend “to deal with the manner in which police force is used at specific protest events against [the government’s] policies, along with the decisions of law enforcement authorities regarding criminal proceedings against participants in protest events.”

The scheduled deliberations follow a meeting between Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Itamar Ben Gvir on the matter last week, during which they berated Baharav-Miara and other top law enforcement officials for their handling of the ongoing unrest.

Baharav-Miara wrote Thursday that “the law enforcement system is obligated to professionally and independently exercise the authorities with which it is endowed by law. This independence is a central guarantee for the safeguarding of human rights.”

“It is precisely at a time of protest against the government’s policy and its ministers that the government must be extremely careful to avoid actions that could be interpreted as an attempt to illegitimately influence the professional judgment of law enforcement officials,” she added.

Baharav-Miara said that holding such a meeting “at the current time, amid protests against the policies of the government and its ministers, is very problematic.” She also noted that some of the participants have “a personal interest” in the police response to the protests.

Citing these considerations, the attorney general said she and other law enforcement officials could speak in general terms at the meeting, but stressed that it was “neither possible or proper” for them to address “concrete cases.” Baharav-Miara concluded her letter by saying law enforcement was giving a “high priority” to dealing with the protests.

Mounted Israeli police officers try to disperse anti-government protesters on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (Oren Ziv/AFP)

Baharav-Miara’s warning drew a fiery response from Levin and Ben Gvir, with the former accusing her of “ignoring the ongoing and unprecedented violation of the basic rights of millions of citizens to get safely to work, to the hospital, to freely access the airport, etc.”

The justice minister also claimed she was ignoring the police’s “dangerous selective enforcement” against different types of protests.

“The right to protest within the boundaries of the law is sacred and not subject to dispute, but massive violations of the law and inciting violence and disobeying the law require a clear and unified enforcement policy,” Levin said in a statement. “We will demand answers about this at the upcoming cabinet meeting.”

Ben Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, noted the resignation the previous night of Tel Aviv police chief Amichai Eshed, who said he was being forced out for political reasons and for his refusal to violently crack down on protesters.

“Last night we saw how a deputy commissioner [Eshed] turned into a politician in uniform. Today we see how the attorney general has turned into a politician in uniform,” Ben Gvir tweeted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (C) and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (R) during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Protests against the controversial legislation to remake Israel’s judiciary have been ongoing and recently ramped up as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its efforts to push through some of the laws.

The demonstrations have angered the coalition, with Ben Gvir repeatedly clashing with the police force over its handling of the demonstrators. He has also argued for a tougher approach toward protesters and more arrests.

Ben Gvir’s outrage was often directed at Eshed, amid the latter’s refusal to use greater force against the months-long anti-overhaul demonstrations.

“I could have easily used disproportionate force and filled the Ichilov [Medical Center] emergency room at the end of every demonstration in Tel Aviv,” Eshel said at a press conference Wednesday announcing his resignation. “We could have cleared Ayalon [Highway] within minutes at the terrible cost of cracking heads and breaking bones and at the cost of breaking the pact between police and the citizenry.”

Holding his own press conference later in the evening, Ben Gvir accused Eshed of “surrendering to the left.”

Police’s Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel has been rocked by mass demonstrations since early January, when the government first unveiled its far-reaching plans to neuter the judicial system. Protesters have warned that the proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters claim it is a much-needed reform to rein in an overly activist court.

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