Netanyahu swipes at AG: In a democracy, government is responsible for police, army

PM’s comment comes after Baharav-Miara froze Tel Aviv police chief’s transfer ordered by Ben Gvir, and warned against bill to grant security forces immunity from prosecution

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 12, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 12, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)

In comments apparently aimed at Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday warned against interference in running the nation’s security bodies.

“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,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

He was apparently referring to Baharav-Miara’s decision last week to order a freeze on the transfer of Tel Aviv police commander Amichai Eshed amid concerns it was politically motivated.

“It is not only anchored in law; it is anchored in common sense. There is no one else to determine who will command these bodies, who will lead them, and how they will be led,” Netanyahu charged.

Netanyahu added that such a system “is the basis of every democracy and society, and if you undermine it, you undermine the very existence of democracy.”

Baharav-Miara froze Eshed’s transfer amid concerns it had been instigated by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in a breach of the minister’s permitted behavior.

And hours before Netanyahu’s comments, a pause was placed on a sweeping proposal to grant legal immunity to Israeli security forces, after Baharav-Miara warned the bill would expose troops to foreign prosecution and pose grave dangers for the relationship between Israeli public and law enforcement.

Netanyahu also hit back at opponents of his government’s contentious plan to radically overhaul the judiciary, saying that “there is no conditional Zionism.”

“You can’t be in favor of Israel’s economy and encourage the withdrawal of funds from Israel. You can’t be in favor of the rule of law and encourage violations of the law. You can’t be in favor of national security and encourage refusal [to serve] to collapse the security of the state. You cannot say ‘I support the country’ but ‘If you don’t accept my position I will leave the country,’” he said.

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara seen during a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Baharav-Miara has frequently found herself issuing opinions that put her at odds with the government, Israel’s most hardline to date.

The ousting of Eshed was announced on Thursday evening by Ben Gvir, who said that at the recommendation of Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Eshed would be reassigned to head the police’s Training Department.

Despite the announcement, Eshed led the response to a terror attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, shortly after his transfer was announced and before the attorney general froze it.

Both Shabtai and the police minister have insisted that the reassignment — ordered amid Ben Gvir’s criticism of Eshed’s ostensible soft policing of anti-government protesters — had been planned in advance.

But Ben Gvir has also said his decision to make the move now was tied to the commander’s handling of the mass protests in Tel Aviv over the past 10 weeks, where police have largely shown patience with demonstrators even when they have blocked roads and the major Ayalon Highway.

On Saturday, Shabtai said at a press conference that he’d “made a mistake” in approving the transfer of Eshed, who has made no secret of his ambition to hold the top job in the police force.

In his short tenure so far as police minister, Ben Gvir — who was arrested dozens of times and holds convictions for incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group — has repeatedly clashed with the police, often criticizing the force for not taking a harsher stance against demonstrators.

A composite image of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 and Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Ben Gvir had reportedly raged over the police’s restrained conduct on Thursday at major anti-government protests in Tel Aviv and near Ben Gurion International Airport in a “day of resistance” against the government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary and greatly weaken the Supreme Court.

Ben Gvir has criticized officers after they didn’t use force to disperse anti-government protesters and has urged police to crack down on demonstrators who block roads, including using water cannons to disperse them and arresting them more liberally.

The protests have gained pace over the past 10 weeks, as opponents say the proposals, led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Netanyahu, will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have charged it is a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

Speaking on Kan news after Shabtai’s press conference, Ben Gvir said “the attorney general is governing the commissioner,” adding that “she is the problem.”

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 herself.

Ben Gvir has repeatedly lashed out at Baharav-Miara for her rulings and recommendations in recent months, calling her the “real prime minister” of Israel and asserting that she wants to control the government and the police.

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