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Barlev warns law fails to set boundaries on his successor

Knesset passes ‘Ben Gvir law,’ cementing minister’s expanded powers over police

‘We made history,’ says exultant incoming minister; several explosive sections toned down or dropped from controversial legislation, voted in by MKs after an all-night filibuster

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

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a vote expanding his powers as incoming minister of national security, in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a vote expanding his powers as incoming minister of national security, in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Knesset passed a contentious law on Wednesday to cement broad political control over the Israel Police, wrapping up a three-part legislative blitz ahead of the scheduled swearing-in of incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Thursday.

Approved 61 to 55 in its third and final reading, the law was insisted upon by incoming police minister Itamar Ben Gvir as a condition for joining Netanyahu’s government, one of several far-reaching demands from the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that will partner with Netanyahu’s Likud in the new coalition.

“We made history,” Ben Gvir said immediately upon the law’s passage, promising that it would lead to “a strong police” force.

Amending existing police regulations, the law states that the government has “authority” over the Israel Police. It places Ben Gvir, as incoming national security minister, “in charge of” the force on behalf of the government.

The law explicitly grants Ben Gvir the authority to direct general police policy and to outline “general principles for action.” He can also influence policy relating to investigations, after consulting with the police commissioner and hearing the attorney general’s opinion.

Addressing the Knesset plenum before the Wednesday vote, outgoing public security minister Omer Barlev said that the policy-setting powers provided by the law were too broad and amorphous.

Incoming national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir shakes hands with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset after a vote to expand Ben Gvir’s ministerial powers, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The minister’s powers for setting policy are broadly formulated, general and vague, with an opening for interpretation and over-expansion,” he said.

Speaking of investigations policy in particular, Barlev said that the law failed to “place sufficient and clear boundaries regarding the minister’s involvement.”

Outgoing Minister of Public Security Omer Barlev speaks in the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Even more explosive provisions to make the police commissioner formally subordinate to Ben Gvir, as well as give the minister free rein to develop policy on investigations and police prosecution, were removed from the law in response to pressure from the attorney general’s office, which objected to the clauses’ undermining of the independence of the police force.

Ben Gvir has said he plans to pursue the legislation of those policies at a later date.

Barlev, in his pre-vote address to the Knesset, said that the “important changes” made to the law during its legislative process “point out how superficial, unprofessional and bad this bill was, and therefore dangerous.”

The outgoing police minister, from the center-left Labor party, said that despite the paring down of Ben Gvir’s demands, “the current version of the bill is not satisfactory, to say the least.”

Ben Gvir did not speak during the 17-hour opposition-led filibuster preceding Wednesday morning’s final vote.

In this government handout photo, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) visits the base of an undercover Border Police unit that operates in the West Bank, April 15, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In the lead-up to the November 1 election, Ben Gvir campaigned with a tough-on-crime and tough-on-terror message. His promises resonated with Israelis concerned by a weakened sense of security in the midst of a lingering terror wave and frustrated by under-policing in crime-ridden areas.

To push his internal security and law-and-order agenda, Ben Gvir said that he wanted more control over setting police policies and priorities, in line with the principle that the minister holding responsibility for a post should have concomitant authority.

During the days of committee discussion ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Barlev and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai countered that the minister is already able to influence policy, though not call operational shots.

Ben Gvir said in the committee discussions that he believes increased ministerial power would help him better battle perennial societal plagues, including protection-money schemes in the south, vandalism against farmers, lawlessness on the roads, and harassment of women.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The law approved Wednesday did not include provisions Ben Gvir had sought that would make the police commissioner “subordinate” to the minister.

Critics, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have warned that Ben Gvir may use his expanded powers to build a “private army.” Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari said that the more expansive earlier draft of the law did not establish a proper power balance between the police minister and the police commissioner. Furthermore, she lamented that Ben Gvir declined to include language stipulating that the police force is an apolitical organ.

In addition to expanding political authority over the police, the newly passed law will increase transparency by publishing non-classified police regulations and Ben Gvir’s policies online.

The law is likely to be the first of several moves by Ben Gvir to expand political control over policing, as well as attempts to reform operational regulations.

Ben Gvir has said that he wants to ease open-fire rules to enable security forces to fire on people holding rocks or firebombs. He also said he wants to increase legal immunity for security forces.

Before entering politics, lawyer Ben Gvir cultivated a practice defending Jewish extremists. He himself has multiple convictions for supporting a Jewish terror group and for incitement to racism. In May 2021, commissioner Shabtai accused Ben Gvir of fanning the flames of Arab-Jewish violence amid a series of riots that shocked the nation.

Ben Gvir has said that he and Shabtai have improved their relationship of late, although he backtracked two weeks ago after Shabtai criticized his police regulations amendments at a committee meeting. Ben Gvir was said to have mulled firing Shabtai once he takes office as national security minister.

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