Fears of police politicization have already been realized, laments deputy AG

As Knesset committee debates bill subordinating police commissioner to Ben Gvir, Gil Limon says original law passed in December has been enough to erode force’s independence

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Police chief Kobi Shabtai, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir at a Hanukkah ceremony in Jerusalem on December 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir at a Hanukkah ceremony in Jerusalem on December 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A law passed in December that increased the government’s influence over police policy has harmed the force’s operative independence and increased its politicization, Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon lamented Tuesday during a Knesset committee meeting.

The law — which had been pushed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir as a condition for joining the ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — 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.

But the law passed in December didn’t go as far as Ben Gvir wanted. Two key clauses were removed from it at the time due to projected legal difficulties: one subordinating the police commissioner to the national security minister, and another enabling the minister to direct policy regarding the pursuit of individual investigations.

These two clauses are now being advanced, with the Knesset having approved the legislation in the first of three required votes. On Tuesday, a special committee set up to discuss the clauses held a debate in preparation for their second and third readings.

During the session, Limon said that even without the two final clauses having been legislated, the fears voiced by the Attorney General’s Office in December about the law upending the proper relationship between police and the government have been realized.

Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon (center) speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on January 16, 2023. (Dani Shem-Tov/Knesset)

According to the Haaretz daily, Limon said the original bill “deviated significantly from the arrangement that was in place before and tried to create a new balance, which de facto significantly reduced the independence of the Israel Police and its head.” He said it sought to “harm police independence” without introducing “balances and insurances to preserve the police’s independence.”

He said that at the time, the Attorney General’s Office had expressed concern that the bill would boost the weight of political considerations in matters related to fundamental human rights such as freedom of protest and detainees’ rights, and allow the minister to influence matters with diplomatic or security ramifications that normally must be approved by the entire government.

“Even though the Knesset ended up legislating only some of the arrangements included in the [original] law bill… not only have our concerns not been proven false, on the contrary — to our dismay, they have been realized,” the deputy attorney general said.

Protesters gather on the Ayalon Highway amid ongoing protests against controversial legal reforms being touted by the government, in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

He cited examples such as Ben Gvir’s direct contact with police officials on specific operational matters, and his involvement in the removal of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed over the latter’s purported lenient treatment of people who blocked roads in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul plan. Eshed’s transfer to a lesser position, announced just after Ben Gvir publicly railed against him, has been frozen by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara until the matter is probed.

“We see from inquiries we held and also from remarks by the minister, including tweets, that there is a concern the minister is conveying concrete orders regarding concrete events, and in the fashion it is implemented, we believe this violates police independence,” Limon said.

“The [attorney general’s] goal at the end of the day is to help the minister implement his policy,” he said. “The minister’s policy is to not allow traffic disruption [during protests], but the one who carries this out in the field is the commander. The commander said the roads were reopened after a short while.

“If there is a gap between the policy and its implementation, an internal probe should be conducted… but of course a scenario in which the minister calls the commander in the field and tells him to open the road doesn’t jibe with police independence.”

Tel Aviv district police chief Amichai Eshed speaks to the media at the scene of a terror attack on Dizengoff street, in central Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Earlier this week, Netanyahu appeared to defend Ben Gvir and swipe at Baharav-Miara over the Eshed saga.

“In a functioning democracy, the elected government is responsible for the army, the police, and the other security agencies. That’s how it must be, and woe betide us if it is not so,” the premier said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.

“It is not only anchored in law; it is anchored in common sense,” Netanyahu asserted, adding that such a system “is the basis of every democracy and society, and if you undermine it, you undermine the very existence of democracy.”

On Sunday, Ben Gvir told Baharav-Miara that he believed he could not rely on her to represent him in ongoing or pending lawsuits and appeals. In a letter to the attorney general’s office, Ben Gvir — who is himself a lawyer — wrote that in light of her recent activity, “I cannot trust you to faithfully represent me in the various petitions,” and therefore he intended to represent himself.

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.

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