Bitter rivals also trade accusations regarding death threats

Police minister urges force to ‘keep strong backbone’ as he hands over to Ben Gvir

At ceremony marked by mutual sniping, Omer Barlev warns of far-right new minister’s increased powers; Otzma Yehudit leader says ‘Jewish anarchists’ need to be ‘dealt with’

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

Incoming Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir (right) and his predecessor Omer Barlev at a handover ceremony at the National Security Ministry in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Incoming Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir (right) and his predecessor Omer Barlev at a handover ceremony at the National Security Ministry in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

At a fraught handover ceremony at the National Security Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, outgoing minister Omer Barlev called Sunday for the police and security forces to “show backbone in the face of headwinds,” in a thinly veiled warning against the incoming minister, far-right leader Itamar Ben Gvir.

Barlev, who has clashed on numerous occasions with the Otzma Yehudit party chief, referred several times in his speech to his concerns over right-wing extremism, and warned that steps the incoming minister has already taken will politicize police operations.

Ben Gvir has taken over a ministry with a new name — it used to be the Public Security Ministry — and expanded powers, retorted by denouncing “Jewish anarchists” — a term he usually uses when referring to left-wing activists — accusing them of issuing threats against him and his family and saying they needed to be “dealt with.” But he dedicated most of his speech to his primary policy agenda of taking harsher measures against Palestinian terrorists, rioters and terror inmates.

Addressing the assembled dignitaries at the ceremony, Barlev lauded the diversity among personnel in the Israel Police, the Israel Prison Service and the Israel Fire and Rescue Service, which have all come under the authority of the ministry, and praised their devotion to Israel’s security.

“It is upon you, heads of the [security] agencies and those who serve in them of all ranks to continue to show a strong backbone, to be a solid rock in the face of headwinds, to stand by your professional opinion without fear. This is your professional obligation and it is your ethical responsibility to the citizens of Israel,” said Barlev.

The outgoing minister was alluding to the broadened powers Ben Gvir has received as minister through Knesset legislation which critics, including Barlev, have said will politicize the police and its operations.

Incoming Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir meets with senior police offcers at a handover ceremony at the National Security Ministry in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Barlev noted that within the three services, “Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Circassians serve together, all Israelis, all working for one purpose — the personal security of the citizens of the state.”

The minister added, “There is no supremacy of one faith or sex over another; everyone is a partner, everyone is equal,” in a jibe against Ben Gvir’s ultra-nationalist, religiously conservative Otzma Yehudit party.

Barlev began his address with a lengthy account of his military service, and said that he had never needed Shin Bet security protection until he denounced extremist settlers for carrying out nationalist crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank.

“Because of this comment, citizens of this country threaten to harm a government minister?” said Barlev. “Where have we gotten to, how far have we sunk as a society? How much further will we sink?  Crime is crime, a criminal is a criminal, and it doesn’t matter if they are Jewish or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, an Israeli resident or a foreign national.”

Barlev and Ben Gvir have clashed on numerous occasions over the last 18 months, most recently two weeks ago over legislation passed last week giving Ben Gvir expanded powers over police policy on several levels.

Outgoing Public Security Minister Omer Barlev speaks at the official handover ceremony for incoming minister Itamar Ben Gvir, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Barlev denounced the reforms, saying they would destroy the independence of police force, undermine the democratic principles of the rule of law, and “cause police to be completely controlled by politicians and leave the police as a puppet on a string.”

Ben Gvir retorted at the time that Barlev was “the most failed public security minister ever, who should have hung up his keys a long time ago and gone home.”

During his speech at the handover ceremony following Barlev’s address, Ben Gvir vowed to take a harsh stand against Palestinian terrorism and said he would give “full backing” to police and security personnel tackling violence.

“It should be clear to anyone who wants to cause harm that they will find our security services to be powerful, focused, and knowing how to protect themselves, and it should be clear that security personnel who are defending their own lives will receive full support,” said the new minister.

Ben Gvir is seeking to reduce criminal liability for security forces over actions taken while on active duty, and to relax open-fire regulations to enable greater leeway for security forces when dealing with riots and other violent situations. Barlev has insisted that security personnel already have as much freedom of operation as they need.

“Any terrorist who seeks to harm you — their blood is on their own head, and I will give you full backing in this war,” continued Ben Gvir, addressing the assembled police and security personnel directly.

Incoming Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a handover ceremony at the National Security Ministry in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The new minister also hit back against Barlev’s comments about having received death threats by pointing out that he too had received a security detail over death threats he faced due to his longtime political activity, which included many years as part of the so-called hilltop youth far-right settler extremists, and later defending them as a lawyer and activist.

“Come speak with my wife Ayala and with my children and you will find that almost every week we receive pictures of bloody knives and calls to murder us, time after time — not just from the enemies of Israel but also from anarchist Jews — and the time has come to deal with them,” said Ben Gvir.

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