Plan could 'critically harm' police, cause 'serious mishaps'

Police chief, attorney general sound alarm against forming Ben Gvir’s national guard

With ministers to vote on plan, Shabtai warns of ‘disastrous consequences’ of a competing force, Baharav-Miara stresses legal difficulties; all ministries to see cuts to pay for it

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend the inauguration of a new police station in southern Israel, March 14, 2023. (Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend the inauguration of a new police station in southern Israel, March 14, 2023. (Flash90)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has issued a grave warning against the government’s proposal to form a national guard that reports directly to the National Security Ministry, cautioning that separating the new force from the police will severely harm public security and cause chaos in law enforcement.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara also sounded the alarm Sunday, telling the government that there is a “legal hindrance” to the current version of the proposal and that the police can deal with the challenges they face without needing a competing body.

The cabinet was set to decide Sunday on the fate of the proposal, which will comprise 2,000 servicemembers who will report directly to far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, and will be tasked with tackling “nationalist crime” and terrorism, and “restoring governance where needed.” A timeline for the creation of such a force is unclear, though it is likely to take months.

A chorus of former senior police commanders has warned against the plan, including former police chief Moshe Karadi who said Ben Gvir could use it to launch a “coup.” Civil rights groups as well as opposition politicians have similarly expressed extreme concern over the proposal to bring such a force under the direct control of a government minister, arguing that it could politicize policing and undermine the principle of equality in law enforcement.

In a five-page letter written by Shabtai last week and published in the media on Sunday, the police chief detailed his objection to the “unnecessary” initiative, warning of “disastrous consequences.”

Writing to Ben Gvir, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among those copied on the letter, Shabtai said “the benefit of the guard isn’t clear and could even cause serious operational mishaps.”

He said there was no reason to form a new body with similar powers and areas of authority as the Israel Police, adding that no concrete benefits have been outlined while the move could have “very heavy costs that could amount to harm to the citizens’ personal security.”

Warning that the new situation would lead to a lack of clarity regarding the division of authority between the bodies, Shabtai said the step “is nothing but a waste of resources, doubling the number of headquarters, and betting on a model that hasn’t been proven and has no benefit.”

Shabtai asked to attend the cabinet meeting to present his view that the move would “critically harm” the police, but reports said he was nevertheless not invited to Sunday’s discussion.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at Haifa University, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

The cabinet meeting did, however, hear the opinion of the attorney general, according to a draft of the proposal set to be brought for a cabinet vote later Sunday.

Baharav-Miara’s office informed the ministers of her opinion that “as of now, there is a legal hindrance to advancing the current draft,” according to Hebrew media. She added that the police “must and can deal with security problems without the need for an additional body.”

Ben Gvir’s office dismissed Shabtai’s letter on Sunday in a statement.

“There are senior officials in the police who don’t want a national guard because of ego wars,” the statement said. “The minister gave police three months to present serious plans [for a national guard under the police] but in practice, there is no progress.”

Ben Gvir claimed that “police bureaucracy” was holding back the plan and that separating the new force from police was his way of expediting the move.

“If the police present a serious plan, we will consider in good faith the option of doing so through police. If not, the guard will operate under the National Security Ministry,” the office said.

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the proposed formation of a national guard on March 29, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The Haaretz news site reported Sunday, citing unnamed security officials, that the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Ronen Bar, has also voiced opposition in closed meetings to the formation of the national guard.

The cabinet was also set Sunday to approve ministry budget cuts across the board to fund the new national guard. The 1.5 percent cut in the budgets of all ministries — to hand Ben Gvir’s ministry around NIS 1 billion ($278 million) — irked some ministers, with Welfare Minister Yaakov Margi even saying he would vote against it.

The reduced budget “will force us to cut activities to rehabilitate and save populations that urgently need us, and professional bodies,” Margi said. “We need to strengthen social security and not harm it. The government must make it so that the welfare budget is never harmed.”

One of the candidates to head the national guard, according to Haaretz, is recently retired IDF Col. Avinoam Emunah, who was filmed last year telling soldiers ahead of an operation near the Gaza Strip: “Most of the time you’ll see them fleeing, kill them while they’re fleeing.”

A group of anti-government demonstrators play-act the national guard forces proposed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ahead of a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on April 1, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has repeatedly involved himself directly in the policing of the massive demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul program, including telling the police which highways to make sure are left open during the protests, discussing the methods of crowd dispersal, and visiting police command centers while demonstrations were underway.

Channel 12 reported on Saturday that within police ranks, the plans for a national guard are viewed as a “catastrophe.”

The national guard unit established by the previous government in 2022 is currently under the authority of the Israel Police and comprises only a few hundred personnel derived mostly from the Border Police, which is itself a gendarmerie force.

The proposal says that the new national guard force will be composed of “regular forces and tactical, dedicated brigades” spread out nationwide.

Publication of the draft resolution came days after Netanyahu promised to bring it to a vote on Sunday in return for Ben Gvir agreeing to the premier’s suspension of judicial shakeup legislation following mass protests, strikes, and unrest against the plan. The government is currently holding talks with the opposition to try to reach a negotiated compromise on the matter.

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