Herzog: Police serve us all, should be left out of politics

As contentious police bill passes 1st reading, Ben Gvir says critics ‘undemocratic’

Expected incoming police minister assails rivals as ‘illiberal’; Yesh Atid MK says Otzma Yehudit chief should learn on the job before making changes

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a Knesset session to debate his police regulations bill, December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a Knesset session to debate his police regulations bill, December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, the expected incoming national security minister, said Tuesday his rivals were anti-democratic for criticizing his push to legally subject the police force to government authority, a move the deputy attorney general has said will create a power imbalance.

He made the comments ahead of voting on a bill to expand ministerial powers over the Israel Police.

The contentious bill cleared its first reading in the Knesset with a vote of 63-53, after a 4.5-hour filibuster staged by the incoming opposition. The legislation now returns to committee on Wednesday in preparation for its final readings, expected as early as next week.

“The change we are making is a blessing to democracy — but democracy is not interesting to you because you have never been democrats,” Ben Gvir said in an address to the expected incoming opposition during a Tuesday debate in the Knesset preceding the first reading of the bill.

Attacking his political rivals, Ben Gvir continued: “You are backwards, illiberal people who are unable to accept different opinions and you are not aligned with the democratic regime.”

Ben Gvir’s bill would make the police and its leadership subordinate to the national security minister and under the government’s authority. At the same time, it declared the police commissioner — not a member of the government — the force’s “highest command authority.” It remained unclear how that would play out in practice, given that the position was made subordinate to the minister’s.

Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu looks on after a speech at the Knesset during a session to elect the new speaker, in Jerusalem on December 13, 2022. (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The bill would also give presumed minister Ben Gvir the ability to set police policy, with the exception of making decisions on whether individuals should be charged. In addition, the formulation of investigations policy would require consultation with the police chief and attorney general.

The legislation is part of a suite of three legal changes demanded by expected incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s partners as preconditions to forming their right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox government next week.

As part of an apparent deal between the incoming opposition and coalition, the plenum is expected to stay closed following Tuesday’s vote and to not open again until next Monday. This will prevent final voting on the bills until next week, but will also potentially buy Netanyahu more time to finish all legislation before swearing in his government.

While he is expected to announce that he has finalized his much-expected coalition by Wednesday evening — ahead of a midnight deadline — Netanyahu’s subsequent seven-day clock until he must swear in the government won’t start ticking until his coalition is presented to the Knesset plenum. This, if the Wednesday plenum closure holds, means Netanyahu will have a few more days to complete his legislative push.

Defending his bill on the Knesset floor, Ben Gvir said, “I was shocked that the attorney general objected to us writing that the commissioner is subordinate to the government.”

On Monday, the deputy attorney general said that the proposed police regulations updates do not establish a proper power balance between the police minister and police commissioner. Furthermore, she lamented that Ben Gvir declined to include language stipulating that the police are an apolitical organ.

Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari speaks at a special committee in the Knesset, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police chief Kobi Shabtai has also come out strongly against Ben Gvir’s drive to expand ministerial power over the police force, and the far-right lawmaker is said to have threatened Shabtai’s job if he does not fall in line.

Ben Gvir on Tuesday reiterated his oft-made argument that “only in police states does the commissioner work on his own or is not subordinate.”

In general, a police state is considered to be one where the police are under a political leader’s control, rather than maintaining a measure of independence to apolitically enforce law and order.

A terror wave, under-policing in the country’s north and south, and the recent memory of Arab-Jewish violence in mixed cities made safety a core issue in the November elections, and Ben Gvir rode the wave into runaway success. He transformed his fringe party into a six-MK force on the far-right.

Ben Gvir has promised voters a return to internal security and governance, and he has positioned his demand that the public security minister’s role be legally expanded — as well as his rebranding of the office as the National Security Ministry — as necessary for him to bring about the changes he promised.

“You know very well that we are bringing in a different policy. If it weren’t Itamar Ben Gvir but Omer Barlev who brought this proposal, you would have applauded him,” Ben Gvir said, referring to the outgoing police minister, a member of the center-left Labor party.

Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, right, and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev look at a display of illegal weapons during a ceremony in Ma’ale Adumim, after a large police operation against illegal gun dealers, September 7, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Yesh Atid MK and former police official Mickey Levy said that Ben Gvir should reconsider his legislative rush job, given the seriousness of the subject.

“This law should have come after the minister had been appointed, studied his work,” Levy added.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy speaks to freshman Knesset members a day before the 25th Knesset opens, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has expressed concern that Netanyahu’s Likud may pull back on promises made during their negotiations, saying multiple times this month that Likud is “wavering.”

Meanwhile on Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog urged strengthening the police, stressing that the organization should be left out of political quarrels.

“Mounting violence throughout Israel is threatening to destroy us,” Herzog said at a ceremony honoring exceptional cops at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. “I call on all elected officials and public servants to act together determinedly to eradicate this phenomenon. Even in days when it seems like the police are at the center of a political debate, we shouldn’t forget: the police belong to all of us.”

The far-right Religious Zionism and ultra-Orthodox Shas parties have also demanded that some of their promises be fulfilled before pledging they would vote to swear in the government.

The Basic Law changes necessary to place their respective leaders — Bezalel Smotrich and Aryeh Deri — in their desired ministries is still in committee debate in preparation for the combined bill’s final readings later this week.

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