Committee appointed to discuss authorities of new force

Ministers approve Ben Gvir-led national guard, major budget cuts to fund it

After warnings by police chief and AG, several cabinet members express displeasure, yet vote in favor; Lapid decries measure handing far-right minister ‘a private militia’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)
Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

After a heated discussion at their weekly cabinet meeting, ministers voted Sunday in favor of forming a national guard, potentially under the command of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, along with a major budget cut across all ministries to fund it.

The controversial force is expected to comprise 2,000 servicemembers who will be tasked with tackling “nationalist crime” and terrorism, and “restoring governance where needed.” A timeline for the creation of such a force is unclear, though it is likely to take months. A committee will also decide whether, as Bn Gvir has sought, it will report directly to the far-right minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Ben Gvir last week that he would bring the issue to a vote at the next cabinet meeting, in exchange for the far-right minister remaining in the government despite his strong opposition to Netanyahu’s pause of judicial overhaul legislation to allow for dialogue with the opposition.

According to Hebrew media reports, several ministers in the cabinet expressed opposition to the 1.5 percent cut in the budgets of all ministries, which would hand Ben Gvir’s ministry around NIS 1 billion ($278 million). They said it was irresponsible and would draw public criticism, but nevertheless voted in favor.

Finance Ministry officials have said they can find alternative funding solutions within several months to avoid the sweeping cuts, criticizing Ben Gvir for demanding the money immediately, the Ynet news site reported.

During the meeting, Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) accused Ben Gvir of “wanting everything here and now at the expense of other ministries,” with the far-right minister retorting angrily until Netanyahu intervened.

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)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid decried the government’s priorities as “ridiculous and despicable” and slammed ministers for voting to “finance a private army of thugs for the TikTok clown.”

The government “has existed for three months and the only thing that interests it is trampling democracy and advancing the delusional fantasies of delusional people,” Lapid said.

The authority granted to the national guard, and who it will answer to, will be discussed by a committee of professionals from different security bodies and government agencies who will deliver their conclusions within 90 days, according to a cabinet statement.

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the proposed formation of a national guard on March 29, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

A chorus of former senior police commanders has warned against the plan, including former police chief Moshe Karadi, who said Ben Gvir could use the force to launch a “coup.” Civil rights groups as well as opposition politicians have similarly expressed extreme concern over the proposal to bring such a force under the direct control of a government minister, arguing that it could politicize policing and undermine the principle of equality in law enforcement.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai cautioned in a letter to Ben Gvir last week that separating the new force from the police will severely harm public security and cause chaos in law enforcement, warning of “disastrous consequences.”

He said there was no reason to form a new body with similar powers and areas of authority as the Israel Police, adding that no concrete benefits have been outlined, while the move could have “very heavy costs that could amount to harm to citizens’ personal security.”

Warning that the new situation would lead to a lack of clarity regarding the division of authority between the bodies, Shabtai said the step “is nothing but a waste of resources, doubling the number of headquarters, and gambling on a model that hasn’t been proven and has no benefit.”

Ben Gvir’s office dismissed Shabtai’s letter as part of an “ego war” with the police, saying “police bureaucracy” was holding back the plan to form a national guard as part of the police and that separating the new force was his way of expediting the move.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara also sounded the alarm Sunday, telling the government that there is a “legal hindrance” to the current version of the proposal and that the police can deal with the challenges it faces without needing a competing body.

A group of anti-government demonstrators play-act the national guard forces proposed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ahead of a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on April 1, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Haaretz news site reported Sunday, citing unnamed security officials, that the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Ronen Bar, has also voiced opposition in closed meetings to the formation of the national guard.

One of the candidates to head the national guard, according to Haaretz, is recently retired IDF Col. Avinoam Emunah, who was filmed last year telling soldiers ahead of an operation near the Gaza Strip: “Most of the time you’ll see them fleeing, kill them while they’re fleeing.”

The Walla news site reported that during the cabinet discussions, Netanyahu mentioned another option — Gal Hirsch, a former IDF brigadier general. The report said the name of former police deputy commissioner Uri Bar-Lev also came up.

Ben Gvir, as national security minister, has repeatedly involved himself directly in the policing of the massive demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul program, including telling the police which highways to make sure are left open during the protests, discussing the methods of crowd dispersal, and visiting police command centers while demonstrations were underway.

Channel 12 reported on Saturday that within police ranks, the plans for a national guard are viewed as a “catastrophe.”

The national guard unit established by the previous government in 2022 is currently under the authority of the Israel Police and comprises only a few hundred personnel derived mostly from the Border Police, which is itself a gendarmerie force.

The proposal says that the new national guard force will be composed of “regular forces and tactical, dedicated brigades” spread out nationwide.

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