The coalition deals

Otzma Yehudit deal includes control over Border Police, major boost to police funds

Far-right leader Ben Gvir also gets a commitment to a nationwide police drive ‘to restore security’; plan to allow racists to run for Knesset scrapped from agreement

Jeremy Sharon

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

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with the head of the Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with the head of the Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The far-right, ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party has secured promises in its coalition agreement with the Likud party that will give it control over a key police unit, see it initiate a massive nationwide police campaign “to restore security” and preside over huge increases in police spending.

Along with legislation already passed in the Knesset, the coalition agreement gives Otzma Yehudit leader and incoming National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir unprecedented powers over law enforcement.

The ultra-nationalist party also obtained commitments to advance legislation to change the legal liability of soldiers and security personnel for actions they take in the line of duty; institute the death penalty for terrorists; strip “terrorists” of their nationality and deport them; review the possibility of downgrading prison conditions for Palestinian security prisoners; and ban the Palestinian flag from state-funded institutions and local municipal authorities.

Coalition deals are not legally binding, and their clauses are not always implemented.

Police power

One of the most consequential aspects of the Otzma Yehudit coalition agreement is a clause that will see the entire Border Police, a gendarmerie force, removed from the authority of the Israel Police and placed directly under the national security minister.

Previously, it was thought that Ben Gvir would be given greater jurisdiction over Border Police in the West Bank, usually under the purview of the defense minister. The broader clause removing the entire force from under the police chief and offering the minister direct control was revealed only on Wednesday, once the full deal was published.

The relevant clause in the coalition agreement calls for a government resolution to be passed within 90 days of the establishment of the new government to significantly bolster the recently created Israel National Guard unit, made up of Border Police forces, through dedicated budgets and organizational infrastructure.

Within that government resolution, the Border Police will be detached from the Israel Police and turned into “an independent service” and “subject to the [national security] minister.”

Israeli border police officers in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 12, 2022. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The Border Police will subsequently answer to the minister directly, giving him control over a force that carries out sensitive operations in the West Bank, is in charge of quelling Palestinian riots and protests and may get a greater role in handling internal unrest going forward.

Nationwide police security campaign

Another crucial clause in Otzma Yehudit’s agreement with Likud is a commitment to launch a broad, nationwide police operation to “restore personal security” around the country, “eradicate nationalist crime” and “prepare for dealing with the potential opening of an internal front during an emergency.”

The planned police operation will be initiated following the passage of a government resolution, to be made no later than 60 days after the establishment of the government, and which will include the confiscation of illegal weapons and a “restoration of security… through a focus on nationalist thuggery, agricultural terror,” and “creating a force to deal with the strategic threat of an internal front at the time of a [military] operation.”

Much of this seems focused on what Otzma Yehudit, and its ultra-nationalist ally Religious Zionism, perceive to be a threat from Israel’s Arab citizens toward the Jewish population. It is also a reference to a potential repeat of the events of May 2021, when widespread unrest in Arab communities and mixed cities led to riots and ethnic violence involving Arab and Jewish hooligans.

In September this year, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich invoked fears that Arab citizens could act as a fifth column against Jewish Israelis during a war with an external enemy.

A law passed on Wednesday morning at Ben Gvir’s behest gave the far-right leader broad political control over the Israel Police including the ability to direct general police policy, and increased the minister’s influence over policy on investigations policy.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai at a special committee in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Massive increase in police spending

The national security ministry which Ben Gvir will run as minister will also receive a massive increase in budget allocations, rising by NIS 45 billion ($12.7 billion) over the next seven years. These funds will be used to bolster infrastructure and manpower within units that are subordinate to the ministry, as well as for training and salary increases for police personnel.

Reducing liability, relaxing open fire regulations?

Another clause stipulates that legislation will be passed to “establish arrangements” regarding the legal responsibility of soldiers and security personnel for actions they take in the line of service. This is in line with demands Otzma Yehudit made during the campaign to make security personnel immune from prosecution over actions that may be illegal under current laws.

At the same time, the coalition agreement says that Ben Gvir as minister will examine the possibility of relaxing open fire regulations for security personnel. Ben Gvir has claimed on multiple occasions that security forces are restrained in their ability to adequately combat Palestinian terrorism, although outgoing public security minister Omer Barlev has rejected such assertions.

Legislation for executing terrorists and deporting terrorists

Otzma Yehudit’s coalition agreement also calls for the enactment of legislation to impose the death penalty on terrorists, to be passed before the approval of the 2023 budget. The clause does not provide a definition for who is defined as a terrorist.

At the same time, a separate clause calls for the passage of legislation that would allow “terrorists” to be stripped of their citizenship and deported. Once again, no definition is provided.

In an interview with Channel 13 earlier this year, Ben Gvir said those throwing stones or petrol bombs at Israeli security services could be included in those targeted for deportation.

Palestinian youth throw stones at Israeli security forces during a raid in the West Bank village of Salem, near Nablus, on December 14, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Downgrading prison conditions for Palestinian prisoners

One highly sensitive clause in the Otzma agreement includes a commitment to examining the possibility of downgrading prison conditions for Palestinian security prisoners. Ben Gvir has frequently railed against what he describes as the comfortable conditions enjoyed by convicted Palestinian terrorists, and submitted a bill last year to deny such prisoners meat and poultry while in jail, as well as to restrict them to one visit a year.

The clause in the coalition agreement says more vaguely that Otzma Yehudit and Likud “believe that the conditions for security prisoners should be changed” and guarantees only that the security cabinet will hold a hearing on the matter within 90 days of the establishment of the government.

Scrapped from the deal: Allowing racists to run for Knesset

Despite media reports — based on the party’s own statements — that the coalition agreement would include a clause to allow persons deemed to have incited racial hatred to stand for the Knesset, this stipulation was not included in the final deal.

The deal does, however, include a commitment to legislate an amendment to make it easier to ban a party or a candidate for the Knesset from running if they reject Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic country. This could endanger the ability of some Arab political parties to stand for election, as some of them explicitly endorse a policy to strip Israel of its official Jewish character.

Banning the Palestinian flag, taxing donations from foreign governments

The agreement says legislation will be advanced to ban the use of Palestinian flags in a state-funded institution, or in a local municipal authority.

Another legislative commitment is to pass a law imposing a 20 percent tax on the donations of foreign governments to Israeli NGOs. This proposal would appear to be aimed at the plethora of civil and human rights organizations in Israel that highlight alleged abuses against Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, and which are routinely castigated by the right for such activity.

Palestinians lift their national flag on a fence across from Israelis lifting theirs at the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israelis mark Jerusalem Day, on May 29, 2022. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

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