Police chief: No officers harmed in six months of protests

Ministers castigate AG at cabinet meeting, demand protest crackdown, urge her removal

Baharav-Miara berated; ministers say she’s soft on anti-overhaul demos, backs protesters; AG: Hope gov’t isn’t seeking to overrule police, set arrest quotas; Gantz: A horror show

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 9, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool Photo via AP)
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 9, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool Photo via AP)

A succession of ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government derided and denounced Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara during a raucous, hours-long cabinet meeting on Sunday, in which she was repeatedly attacked over authorities’ handling of lawbreaking during demonstrations against the government. Several calls were made for her dismissal.

Netanyahu started off what became an angry and tempestuous debate by telling Baharav-Miara that “selective enforcement is a fatal wound to democracy,” and his ministers soon piled on to castigate the attorney general over the issue.

Baharav-Miara and other senior officials in the Justice Ministry were summoned to Sunday’s cabinet meeting to discuss how law enforcement agencies have dealt with the massive wave of protests against the government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary, which have included blocking highways and other forms of civil disobedience.

Ministers have bristled at what they view as overly soft handling of demonstrators who harass and heckle them wherever they go, stage protests at their homes and block key roads for hours at a time.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev said Baharav-Miara should be fired in light of what the Likud minister said was the attorney general’s unwillingness to prevent disturbances of the peace; National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said the failure to indict more protesters was “disgraceful”; Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan told her that “selective enforcement is evil”; and Justice Minister Yariv Levin accused her of siding with the demonstrators and suggested sarcastically that she should simply announce that blocking Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway is legal.

Kan news reported that, speaking to ministers outside the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu did not rule out the possibility of firing Baharav-Miara. Unnamed senior cabinet ministers told Kan the meeting was meant to demonstrate the severe lack of trust between the government and the attorney general, which could justify her dismissal. The Likud party denied the report and said Netanyahu had been the one in the cabinet meeting who ruled out firing the attorney general.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 9, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Baharav-Miara responded to the ministers by implicitly accusing them of attempted political interference in how law enforcement agencies manage protests against the government.

“I hope the government is not asking me to say that it wants more aggressive enforcement to suppress the protest against it, against the professional judgment of the [police] commanders on the ground and the state prosecution,” she stated in response to the wave of denunciations.

“I hope that the government is not expecting the law enforcement system to fill quotas for arrests or indictments against protesters,” she added.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid denounced the cabinet’s attack on the attorney general as “a violent hazing” and an example of the government’s attempt to “forcibly take out our democracy.”

Fellow opposition party chief Benny Gantz termed the meeting “the culmination of a fear-mongering campaign against law enforcement officials.”

“The Netanyahu and Ben Gvir horror show raises the concern that the government is not seeking equal enforcement, but rather bullying enforcement” against the anti-overhaul protesters, said Gantz.

National Unity head Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting of his party in Ramat Gan, July 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

At the end of the meeting, Baharav-Miara was asked to submit a document to the cabinet within seven days detailing law enforcement policy toward road-blocking, protests at elected officials’ homes and calls for refusal to serve in the military and other forms of civil disobedience.

She was also told to present a clear policy on enforcement at Ben Gurion Airport by Tuesday, when mass protests are once again planned for the airport. The protests have been called because the Knesset is expected on Monday to approve the first reading of a bill outlawing the use of the “reasonableness” doctrine to review decisions made by the cabinet, government ministers and other elected officials.

The cabinet further demanded that the attorney general detail policies relating to the blocking of roads, including “if, and how often, it is allowed to block main traffic routes without enforcement actions being taken against the organizers of the blockade and those blocking the roads, without arrests being made or indictments being filed.”

Summoned to the cabinet

Baharav-Miara and other senior officials in the Justice Ministry were summoned to Sunday’s cabinet meeting to discuss how law enforcement agencies have dealt with the massive wave of protests against the government since it took office, which have included blocking highways and other forms of civil disobedience.

According to numbers presented during the meeting, police have arrested 572 protesters since the demonstrations began in January for disturbing the peace, not obeying police instructions or assaulting police officers. Of those cases, six indictments were filed, all for attacking police officers.

According to a report by Ynet, the attorney general said at one point that “There is no such thing as an effective protest without public disturbance,” and cited a court ruling allowing protests close to the home of former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit.

This was said to prompt a furious response from Netanyahu. “Besieging a hair salon six centimeters away [from my wife]? No court would [permit] that,” fumed the prime minister, in reference to an incident on March 1 when a Tel Aviv hair salon visited by Sara Netanyahu was surrounded by hundreds of anti-government protesters.

“So if you want a good protest go and break the law. It’s unbelievable. It’s impossible. That endangers the rule of law,” Netanyahu said.

“If the attorney general supports and allows disturbances of public order, contrary to the opinion of the Supreme Court and previous attorneys general, then what is the job of elected officials?” demanded Regev. “If the attorney general… isn’t willing to help the government function, maybe she should be fired.”

She was joined in her call to dismiss Baharav-Miara by Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem, who is also a second minister in the Justice Ministry. Amsalem said Baharav-Miara and State Attorney Amit Aisman should both be fired.

When, according to several Hebrew media outlets, Netanyahu reprimanded Amsalem for his comments, Amsalem reportedly retorted that the prime minister had “a conflict of interest” regarding the attorney general — an apparent jibe over Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trial.

Ben Gvir, who has authority over the police as national security minister, demanded to know how many protesters had been indicted, and “how many were investigated on suspicion of criminal conspiracy for organizing riots?”

When he was told by a Justice Ministry official that the answers were six and zero respectively, Ben Gvir exploded, declaring, “It’s simply a disgrace. There is no enforcement.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Negev and the Galilee Development Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf, a member of Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party, threatened to take legal action against Baharav-Miara.

“All of Israel’s citizens see the selective enforcement, so I am raising a clear red flag here. It would not be pleasant if we had to petition the High Court of Justice against the attorney general who is not doing her job as expected,” said Wasserlauf.

In a lengthy condemnation of the attorney-general, broadcast on Channel 12 in a leaked recording from the meeting, Levin said she had prevented the government from submitting its drafts of the overhaul legislation “simply because she had a different opinion [to the government] or because she didn’t like [what was being proposed]. I recall that she delivered a forceful speech against this government policy and against the judicial reform… I ask her, is that not extremely problematic?”

(In a speech in January, Baharav-Miara said Levin’s proposals would create an “imbalanced system of checks and balances,” and that “the principle of majority rule will push other democratic values into a corner.” In a searing position paper issued the following month, she wrote that the plans would give the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.)

Baharav-Miara responded to Levin on Sunday: “The legal opinions [presented by her office on the overhaul legislation] are professional opinions, submitted after extensive, professional work, including comparative legal assessment… submitted to the minister at his request and within the timeframe.”

The justice minister interrupted her, saying he had not requested a full-fledged legal opinion, but rather a more limited memorandum. He then asserted that she was “on the side” of the protesters against the overhaul, and that the protesters are demanding that she and her office be strengthened.

Responding to that last point, the attorney general said, “That’s no reason to change my professional view.”

Levin interrupted again, and asserted that her stance placed her in a position of a conflict of interest, and suggested it would have been wiser for her “not to take a side” in the dispute over the legislation.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who was also summoned to the meeting, insisted that it was the policy of police to prevent the blocking of highways and intersections and stressed that the force was apolitical.

“The policy is that it is forbidden to block roads. We could take batons and horses and clear [the protest] in a minute, but how many injuries would there be?” questioned Shabtai, according to a report by Kan News.

Police chief Kobi Shabtai (L) on his way to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 9, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / POOL / AFP)

And he noted that the number of police officers harmed during the protests since January “is zero,” adding that no officer had required hospital treatment for injuries sustained during protests.

Lapid and other members of the opposition condemned the cabinet’s treatment of Baharav-Miara and accused the government of undermining democratic norms in its behavior toward her.

“The government carried out a violent hazing against the attorney general today. The ministers’ ugly attack on Gali Bahara-Miara, a decent [person] and a ‘gatekeeper’ who is just doing her job, is a demonstration of what they are trying to do to Israeli society: bullying instead of the rule of law, government violence against citizens and officials, the forceful elimination of our democracy,” Lapid said.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli compared the attack on Baharav-Miara to behavior in autocratic regimes such as Russia.

“The planned attack by the government against the attorney general should shake us to our core. The government of Israel summoned the attorney general to a hearing in which she was required to answer questions about how many protesters were arrested and taken for questioning. This isn’t happening in Putin’s Russia, it’s here in Netanyahu’s Israel,” said Michaeli.

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