Vows he won't bow to political pressure on right to protest

Police chief admits he was wrong to oust Tel Aviv’s top cop, says he’s not resigning

After intense public criticism of Amichai Eshed’s removal at Ben Gvir’s prodding, Kobi Shabtai says he’s done ‘soul-searching’ in past 48 hours but will not walk away from task

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Two days after the explosive announcement that the commander of the police’s Tel Aviv District would be removed from his post — amid the police minister’s criticism of his ostensible overly soft policing of anti-government protesters — Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said at a press conference Saturday that he’d “made a mistake” in approving the step.

Shabtai also indicated he had considered resigning amid the uproar caused by the move but had decided not to walk away from the task at hand. Protesters, former police chiefs — and, reportedly, current top officers — had accused the commissioner of cowing to political pressure and demanded he resign.

The ouster of Amichai Eshed was announced on Thursday evening by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who said that at the recommendation of Shabtai, Eshed would be moved to head the police’s Training Department. Eshed’s removal was immediately frozen by the attorney general, who said there were concerns that it was carried out at Ben Gvir’s instigation, in a breach of the minister’s permitted behavior.

“I made a mistake. I made an error of judgment, I was wrong in the timing and in the manner in which it was done. I do not take that lightly,” Shabtai said to the cameras. “I respect and accept the decision of the attorney general to freeze the appointment.”

Both Shabtai and Ben Gvir have insisted removing Eshed 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 these have blocked roads and the major Ayalon Highway.

Shabtai said he would continue to work with Eshed and was sure they would continue to be professional with each other. (Eshed has been reported to have told Shabtai following his decision that he was “unfit” to lead the force.)

Tel Aviv District Police Commander Amichai Eshed at a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The commissioner said Eshed’s transfer had originally been intended to be carried out a few weeks from now, after the high-tension month of Ramadan, as part of a wider police reshuffle.

He did not make clear whether he was suspending the move indefinitely or only for as long as Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara requires it.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The police chief indicated the affair, and the fracas it had caused, had led him to reconsider his posting.

“In the past 48 hours, I did some soul-searching, [asking myself] where I was headed,” he said. But, he added, in 37 years of service in uniform, “I have never abandoned a front or a mission, and after considering the matter, I do not intend to do so now.”

Shabtai stressed the force under his leadership was committed to upholding the right to protest “within the boundaries of the law” and vowed he “will not bow to any political pressure on the matter.”

He added: “We do not want to see blood on the streets,” he said, citing incidents when protesters were injured by police stun grenades and when an elderly woman was handcuffed.

“Even if there are doubts about specific incidents, we investigated them,” he said, adding the lessons of those incidents were being applied.

“As commissioner, I am committed to the State of Israel, its laws and values,” he said.

Eshed, meanwhile, received a hero’s welcome from protesters at Saturday’s massive rally in Tel Aviv.

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.”

Earlier on Channel 12’s “Meet the Press,” Ben Gvir said Shabtai had told him Eshed was “a failure” from the moment he’d entered his position as minister.

In an apparent climbdown, Ben Gvir too said Eshed would not be transferred before the end of Ramadan (April 30). He had previously indicated he intended to move him with immediate effect.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir seen at the entrance to the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/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.

The protests have gained pace over the past 10 weeks, as opponents say the proposals, led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

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.

On Friday, senior police sources cited by Haaretz said police leadership “has lost trust in the commissioner” due to his conduct.

In their Thursday call, Eshed reportedly reminded Shabtai that they had agreed he would hold the Tel Aviv district commander role until the end of the year after which he intended to run for the police commissioner role, public broadcaster Kan reported Friday. “If I don’t get it, I’ll go home,” Eshed told Shabtai, according to the report, which also said the senior cop was surprised and “hurt” by the move Thursday.

According to multiple reports in Hebrew media, Eshed told Shabtai: “If this is your decision at this hour and this time, you are unfit to command the police. You are weak, you have destroyed the police. I am not going to [the] training [department]. You will be hearing from me.”

An aerial picture shows a protest in Tel Aviv against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation, March 11, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

On Friday, a group of former commissioners called on Shabtai to resign over the role he played in Eshed’s removal.

In a letter, the former top cops wrote that they were “shocked” by Shabtai’s actions, which they called a “low point in the history of the Israel Police,” charging that he had “lost the moral and ethical right to continue” to lead.

Among the signatories were former commissioners Roni Alsheich, Moshe Karadi, Shlomo Aharonishki, Assaf Hefetz and Rafi Peled.

“You cooperated with a convicted criminal in order to turn the police into a private militia, and in order to satisfy the political whims of an appointed minister,” they wrote in reference to Ben Gvir, accusing Shabtai of involvement in “the purge of a commander with a backbone.”

Before entering office, Ben Gvir was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group.

In his short tenure so far as police minister, Ben Gvir has repeatedly clashed with the police, often criticizing the force for not taking a harsher stance against demonstrators.

Ben Gvir insists he supports the right to protest but not to block main roads and disrupt daily life in the country.

Last month, Ben Gvir criticized officers after they didn’t use force to disperse anti-government protesters in Jerusalem. In January, Ben Gvir urged police to crack down on demonstrators who block roads, use water cannons to disperse them, and arrest them more liberally.

Last week, police came under criticism for using a heavier hand with protesters at a major rally in Tel Aviv for the first time since the mass demonstrations began, winning praise by Ben Gvir for the police’s severe response. The more aggressive tactics led to a number of injuries to protesters, and probes into police conduct.

Notably, Eshed was on vacation during that March 1 protest in Tel Aviv. His deputy oversaw those rallies.

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