Ben Gvir’s conduct in police matters may have ‘crossed the line,’ says AG

Gali Baharav-Miara responds to far-right minister’s High Court petition requesting he be allowed private counsel, says recent events ‘raise real concerns’ about his actions

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (second from left) in the Traffic Police's National Control Center with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (left) on March 9, amid nationwide protests against the government's judicial overhaul program. (Courtesy National Security Ministry)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (second from left) in the Traffic Police's National Control Center with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (left) on March 9, amid nationwide protests against the government's judicial overhaul program. (Courtesy National Security Ministry)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir may have “crossed the line” in his recent interventions with police affairs and operational matters, and must refrain from giving operational instructions to the police “under the guise of alleged policy directives,” Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said, according to reports late Wednesday, amid an escalating spat with the far-right Otzma Yehudit lawmaker and with the ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The attorney general made the comments to the High Court of Justice in response to a petition by Ben Gvir this week demanding he be allowed independent counsel for petitions against legislation expanding his ministry’s powers over the police and, against his decision to remove Tel Aviv District Police Commander Amichai Eshed from his post over the latter’s purported lenient treatment of protesters who blocked roads to demonstrate against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

Eshed’s transfer to a lesser position, announced just after Ben Gvir publicly railed against him, was blocked by Baharav-Miara until the matter is probed. She said the move was warranted amid concerns over Ben Gvir’s political motives. The minister has long called for a harsher stance against anti-government protesters, including mass arrests.

In the document, cited by Hebrew media Wednesday, the attorney general said recent events “raise real concerns that the minister’s conduct crossed the line.”

Ben Gvir, she said, “must avoid giving operational instructions to the police, directly or indirectly, even when they are given in the guise of policy instructions.”

The police officers and commanders in the field should have “independent and professional discretion to fulfill their duties,” said Baharav-Miara.

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara seen during a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022 (Courtesy Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Her reported response to the High Court came a day after Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon said during a Knesset committee meeting that the legislation expanding Ben Gvir’s influence over police policy has harmed the force’s operative independence and increased its politicization.

Limon cited examples such as Ben Gvir’s direct contact with police officials on specific operational matters and the recent uproar over the expected removal of Eshed from his command.

The law in question — which Ben Gvir had pushed as a condition for joining the Netanyahu coalition — explicitly granted the far-right lawmaker the authority to direct general police policy and influence policy relating to investigations provided he consulted with the police commissioner and heard the attorney general’s opinion. After amending existing police regulations, the law states that the government has “authority” over the Israel Police and places Ben Gvir, as national security minister, “in charge of” the force on behalf of the government.

The petitions against Ben Gvir and his ministry challenge both the constitutionality of the legislation, passed in December, and Ben Gvir’s decision to remove Eshed from his command last week.

On Monday, Ben Gvir filed his own petition to the High Court asking it to authorize his request for private legal representation or allow him to represent himself, citing his lack of faith in Baharav-Miara’s ability to faithfully represent his positions in such legal proceedings due to her decision to freeze Eshed’s removal.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir in the Tel Aviv police command center, during demonstrations in the city against the coalition’s judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023. (via Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The Attorney General’s Office almost always represents the government in legal proceedings against it or against legislation, and ministers must receive permission from that office to obtain independent counsel in a situation where the attorney general does not support the government’s position. As well as heading the public prosecution service, the attorney general also serves as the chief legal counsel to the government and reviews government resolutions, administrative decisions, and government-backed legislation to determine their legality. Her title in Hebrew is “Legal Adviser to the Government.”

In response to his petition, the High Court told Ben Gvir he must get the attorney general’s opinion on his request for independent counsel in legal motions against him before approaching the court.

Ben Gvir — who is himself a lawyer — wrote in a letter to Baharav-Miara a day prior that said he believed he could not rely on her to represent him in ongoing or pending lawsuits and appeals: “I cannot trust you to faithfully represent me in the various petitions.” Therefore he “intended to represent himself,” he said.

Ben Gvir has repeatedly lashed out at Baharav-Miara over her rulings and recommendations in recent months, calling her the “real prime minister” of Israel and charging that she wants to control the government and the police. She’s also been in the crosshairs of the ruling party.

A composite image of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 and Erik Marmor/Flash90)

On Sunday, Netanyahu seemingly aimed criticism at Baharav-Miara when, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, he declared that “in a functioning democracy, the elected government is responsible for the army, the police, and the other security agencies.”

“There is no one else to determine who will command these bodies, who will lead them, and how they will be led,” Netanyahu charged.

Last month, Justice Minister Yariv Levin appeared to threaten to fire Baharav-Miara in the future, as the hardline government continued to find itself clashing with its most senior legal representative.

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