Shabtai: 'To put it politely, No one will frighten us'

Likud MK warns police chief, citizens could face probes, prosecution over protests

David Amsalem predicts a future state commission of inquiry into anti-government rallies will go after ‘many people’ for demonstrations against judicial overhaul

Likud MK David Amsalem speaks in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK David Amsalem speaks in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Likud lawmaker said Monday night at the Knesset that “the day will come” when numerous individuals will be investigated and prosecuted over their part in nationwide protests against the government, warning the chief of police that he could find himself among them.

Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai appeared to respond to firebrand MK David Amsalem Tuesday morning by saying the force would not be intimidated by anyone, and would protect the right to freedom of speech and demonstration.

In parliament, Amsalem addressed himself to Shabtai, who has faced criticism from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what they say is his too-soft approach toward protests against the coalition’s judicial overhaul, including the blocking of major roads.

“The day will come, not far off, when we will set up a commission of inquiry into everything that happened here… in the last two months,” said Amsalem, who is slated to be appointed a minister in the Justice Ministry.

“You will see how many people here will be interrogated under caution and prosecuted,” Amsalem predicted. “I suggest that you not be one of them. You are responsible, this is your watch.”

Members of the opposition immediately began heckling Amsalem, who continued to attack protesters whom he referred to as “anarchists.”

The firebrand lawmaker doubled down on his remarks Tuesday with posts to his Twitter account directed at the police chief.

“Mr. Kobi Shabtai, I expect you to start maintaining public order here,” Amsalem wrote. “And that our beloved policemen will start doing their job. Don’t let the anarchists stage a coup here.”

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Tuesday Amsalem’s office called reports that he had threatened the police chief “fake news.”

It said the lawmaker “was calling on the police chief in his speech not to fear threats against him by anarchists and their supporters… he was actually was encouraging him to do what is expected of the police.”

Shabtai attended a security conference Tuesday where he appeared to respond to Amsalem’s remarks, declaring: “I promise that the Israel Police will remain apolitical.”

“We will be careful about equal enforcement, about freedom of protest and freedom of expression regardless of religion, race or gender and affiliation of one kind or another,” Shabtai said.

Then he added: “And to put it politely: No one will frighten us.”

Amsalem’s comments came after Netanyahu on Sunday called for security chiefs to take a tougher stance against the demonstrations, urging Shabtai to prevent protesters from blocking roads. Ben Gvir has long expressed fury that police are too restrained when dealing with the largely peaceful protesters.

The High Court of Justice on Sunday ruled that Ben Gvir may not issue operational orders to police forces regarding how they manage demonstrations and the use of force during protests. In response, Ben Gvir assailed the ruling as a “coup” by the court that “cancels the executive branch.”

The High Court decision issued by Justice Isaac Amit came amid increasingly vocal claims that the ultranationalist minister is trying to repress the mass protests against the government’s judicial reforms by ordering the police to use tougher methods of crowd dispersal.

Ben Gvir himself claims he is merely cracking down on illegal protests such as those blocking highways and other forms of civil disobedience, in order to preserve public order.

The issue has led to an increasingly strained relationship between Ben Gvir and Shabtai.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the Supreme Court and give it control over the appointment of judges.

They say the plan is a long-overdue measure to curb what they see as outsize influence by unelected judges. But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the sweeping overhaul.

Business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by President Isaac Herzog to broker a compromise have not yielded fruit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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