AG: New stance reaffirms minister's motives are ulterior

Ben Gvir cancels hearing for police chief, but pushes on with attempt to fire him

After AG said planned ouster unlawful, minister vows to bring Kobi Shabtai’s dismissal to cabinet in accordance with Meron disaster inquiry; Lapid: If so, PM must be fired as well

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, left, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, outside of Jerusalem, August 1, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, left, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, outside of Jerusalem, August 1, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Tuesday evening that he would continue to pursue Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai’s ouster even after he was barred by the attorney general from summoning Shabtai to a hearing ahead of his firing.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara told the far-right minister in a letter earlier Tuesday that his summons was unlawful and must be canceled, adding that he had failed to provide adequate grounds for firing Shabtai and that all evidence indicated he was acting out of ulterior motives.

Ben Gvir announced on Monday that he was considering early termination for Shabtai, who is set to leave the position in a couple of months, claiming the reason was Shabtai’s alleged general dysfunction.

However, Ben Gvir’s recommendation came only a day after Shabtai himself reported to Baharav-Miara that the minister was unlawfully interfering with the police.

Following Baharav-Miara’s letter, the Movement for Quality Government filed a petition to the High Court, urging it to issue an injunction preventing the hearing from taking place.

In his response to the petition, Ben Gvir alleged that the attorney general had issued her letter despite lacking the authority to do so, but added that he was canceling the hearing “and therefore the request is superfluous.”

However, the police minister added that he intended “to act in accordance with the report of the state commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster, and to bring the commissioner’s termination to a cabinet discussion within 10 days.”

That is a reference to the 2021 Mount Meron disaster, in which 45 people were killed in a crush at the hilltop gravesite of a second-century sage in northern Israel.

Israeli rescue forces after a crush killed dozens during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

In March, a state commission of inquiry presented its damning findings, saying that Shabtai — as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who served as public security minister in 2021 — all bore personal responsibility for Israel’s deadliest peacetime disaster.

The report recommended firing Shabtai, but due to the ongoing war in Gaza left the decision’s timing to the government.

Netanyahu’s government has castigated the commission’s findings, casting it as political and refusing so far to discuss them.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid retorted Tuesday evening that “if the government tries to fire the police commissioner in accordance with the conclusions of the Meron inquiry, it has no choice but to implement the rest of the commission’s conclusions and to first and foremost fire Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

Baharav-Miara, in her own filing to the High Court hours after Ben Gvir’s response to the petition, reiterated that the minister’s adjusted stance indicated that he was still acting in bad faith over the matter.

“There is a distinct concern that the minister’s motives are ulterior, since until now, for months, the minister did not act to end the commissioner’s tenure,” despite the Meron commission’s findings, she wrote.

Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset’s assembly hall for a special session in memory of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In her earlier letter on Tuesday morning, Baharav-Miara slammed the far-right minister’s intention to summon Shabtai to a hearing.

“The proximity of the timing raises serious concerns that under the guise of supposedly principled claims against the commissioner, you are actually seeking to ‘punish’ him for seeking to prevent you from improperly interfering in the work of the police, all while you are acting, apparently, contrary to the express decision of the High Court of Justice,” the attorney general told Ben Gvir, adding that she was also concerned that Ben Gvir was trying to “send a message to the whole chain of command to scare them.”

Heavy clashes broke out between police and worshipers at Mount Meron on Saturday night after hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men tried to violate the wartime ban on gatherings at the site where they wished to hold their annual Lag B’Omer celebration.

In a report to Baharav-Miara on Sunday, Shabtai accused Ben Gvir of violating a High Court of Justice ruling in January that forbade him from giving police orders on how to deal with protests.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at the scene of a fatal shooting attack in Re’em Junction, on February 16, 2024. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Baharav-Miara added in her letter that because of the strong implications that may arise from summoning Shabtai to such a hearing, Ben Gvir was required to provide sufficient evidential foundation for the move.

In his recommendation on Sunday, Ben Gvir accused Shabtai of being “out of touch,” only promoting officers who are close to him, and failing to hold in-depth meetings on rampant crime in the Arab community, among other charges.

However, according to Baharav-Miara, the letter did not “provide the necessary foundation which is a significant problem in itself and increases the concern that other considerations guided” Ben Gvir.

She also noted that Ben Gvir’s recommendation to terminate Shabtai came despite the fact that the police chief’s term, “which you extended only a few months ago, is set to end in less than two months and while the State of Israel is at war.”

In January, the attorney general told the High Court that the national security minister could set policy but not instruct police on specific enforcement after activist groups petitioned the court to prevent Ben Gvir from giving orders on how to police protests.

The court ruled that the minister had violated a decision by the court last year that said he was not permitted to issue such orders.

Police officers escort a Haredi man outside of the Meron compound on May 25, 2024. (Screenshot/Israel Police)

Ben Gvir and Shabtai have had an up-and-down relationship. The minister threatened last year not to extend the police commissioner’s term by the customary year, triggering a spat with National Unity chair Benny Gantz that was ultimately negotiated by the Likud party.

Shabtai had been due to end his tenure in January and had previously said he would not seek an extension but changed his decision after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on Israel in which terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and took 252 hostages, and the subsequent war in Gaza.

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