ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Deputy AG: Despite amendments, Ben Gvir’s policing bill grants unbalanced powers

New draft of legislation to advance to Knesset vote, but still makes police force subordinate to government, and police commissioner subordinate to national security minister

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

Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Knesset special committee to discuss his proposed police regulations changes, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Knesset special committee to discuss his proposed police regulations changes, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The deputy attorney general warned Monday that while expected incoming police minister Itamar Ben Gvir was apparently softening his push to expand ministerial power over the force, this did not solve a power imbalance with the police chief, who would remain subordinate to the minister.

The comments came as Ben Gvir submitted a new draft of a bill meant to expand ministerial authority over police leadership and policy, one of his preconditions for joining the government of Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, which is due to be finalized by midnight on Wednesday.

Ben Gvir, who is expected to serve as police minister in the incoming government, softened some elements of the legislation in order to advance it on its fifth day of fiery committee debate.

Still, the new version of the bill maintains language that underlies much of the ongoing debate, setting out that “the police commissioner will be under the authority of the government and subordinate to the minister,” and also that the police would be “under the authority of the government.”

Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari told the special committee preparing the bill that there were still issues that had not been addressed. “It is a proposal that does not properly balance between the policy of the minister and the policy of the police,” Marari said.

Despite the misgivings of the deputy attorney general, the bill is in its final stages of being approved by the committee and is expected to go the Knesset on Tuesday for the first of three readings before it becomes law.

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

Marari also said that language should be inserted into the bill reaffirming the police as an apolitical organization. Ben Gvir pushed back: “Suddenly when I become a minister, for the first time they want to include in the regulations that the police are not political.”

In addition to refusing to include a clause explicitly stating that the police force will not be used politically, Ben Gvir also declined to include a clause defining that the minister would be bound by legal constraints, according to an unsourced Sunday night Channel 12 report.

Bowing to legal advice, the new proposed version of the bill added language reaffirming that the police commissioner was the police’s supreme commanding authority. However, it remained unclear how that would play out in practice, given that the position was subordinate to the minister’s.

The amended bill no longer contains an attempt by Ben Gvir to change police policies on enforcement, but it stipulates that any attempts by the police minister to change investigations policy must involve the police commissioner and attorney general.

Ben Gvir also added a provision to increase transparency around police regulations, mandating that they be published online except for those that require secrecy.

The changes garnered rare praise for the far-right lawmaker from his political opponents, including Economy Minister Orna Barbivai of the Yesh Atid party, who commended the initiative during the Monday morning committee debate.

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai attends a conference in Modi’in, May 26, 2022. (Flash90)

Expanding the minister’s authorities, along with a separate planned measure to transfer the West Bank Border Police to the minister’s control, are part of beefing up the Public Security Ministry in preparation for Ben Gvir to take over the office to be rebranded as the National Security Ministry.

Ben Gvir took his far-right Otzma Yehudit party to its six Knesset seats by running on a tough-on-terror-and-crime platform.

The lawmaker, who has multiple convictions for supporting a Jewish terror group and racial incitement, has a rocky relationship with the police and security establishment.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai accused the Otzma Yehudit head of fanning flames during Arab-Jewish violence in mixed cities in May 2021, on the sidelines of Israel’s 11-day conflict with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Since the November 1 election that seems set to bring Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, and their far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners to power in Israel’s most hardline government to date, Ben Gvir and Shabtai have said that their relationship has improved.

However, Shabtai came out strongly against Ben Gvir’s drive to expand ministerial power over the police force and the lawmaker is said to be threatening Shabtai’s job if he does not fall in line.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai at a special committee hearing in the Knesset, December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to the police regulations bill, which advanced to its first reading in the plenum, the incoming coalition was set to vote on Monday on a Likud-backed bill to make it harder for rebel MKs to split off from their factions, as well as updates to quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to satisfy demands from the Religious Zionism and Shas parties.

Also set as preconditions for swearing in the government next week, Religious Zionism wants to place its leader Bezalel Smotrich in the Defense Ministry as an independent minister in charge of building in the West Bank, a role that would give the far-right lawmaker unprecedented control over the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.

Shas’s leader Aryeh Deri, who was handed a suspended sentence for tax fraud in January, is pushing to change the law to explicitly bar from ministerial posts only people who served custodial sentences with moral turpitude, in order to pave his way into the interior and health ministries.

Smotrich is also slated to become finance minister, a post he is scheduled to hand over to Deri midway through the government’s tenure.

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