ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Police chief candidate clarifies he will obey court in case of constitutional crisis

Coastal Region Police commander Yoram Sofer was criticized after he initially refused to say what side he would take if government refuses to abide by court ruling

Commander of the Coastal District of the Israel Police Yoram Sofer at a ceremony for incoming National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Commander of the Coastal District of the Israel Police Yoram Sofer at a ceremony for incoming National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer, considered to be a leading candidate for the position of police commissioner, clarified Tuesday that he would side with the High Court of Justice over the government in the case of a constitutional crisis.

“Israel Police are… the authority to maintain the law everywhere and at all times. Hence, as a police officer and a commander in the organization, I am bound by the law and court rulings,” Sofer said, according to the Walla news site. “This is my legal framework and the source of my authority for my actions always and forever.”

“Anyone who implies a different course of action harms the Israel Police, its authority, legitimacy, and the public’s trust,” Sofer added. “And no less seriously, this harms the commanders, policemen and policewomen, and volunteers who have been working for many months, day and night, in order to enable freedom of expression and to allow the civic exercise of democracy. This is our way, and there is no other. Only by fully upholding the law and court rulings will we continue to lead the police.”

The High Court is set to hold hearings next month on petitions demanding that two laws passed by the government be struck down, and there are growing calls within the hard-right coalition for the political leadership to disobey a potential ruling of this sort.

Such a scenario would plunge Israel into a deep constitutional crisis, and could put the police in the position of having to choose whether to obey the government or the court.

Last week, at a Jerusalem press briefing to present a plan for dealing with rampant deadly crime in the Arab community,  Sofer was asked how he would act if such a crisis were to arise.

“I am a public servant, I am a man of the law. I think these questions are not relevant to the [crime] issue,” he responded as he sat next to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees police and is said to favor Sofer as the next chief of the force.

National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer present a new proposal to eradicate crime in the Arab community, in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The current police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, publicly clashed with Ben Gvir on the matter last week by stating that the force must comply with the law. The minister insists police obey elected officials.

Speaking at the same press conference, Ben Gvir said he saw “no contradiction” between what Shabtai said and his own position, as it is the elected government that determines the laws that police enforce.

Sofer has indicated he would back Ben Gvir’s calls for a tough police stance against protesters who for months have held mass demonstrations against the government’s plan to drastically remake the judiciary.

In an interview with Channel 12 in June, Sofer boasted of dealing “forcefully” with anti-government protesters.

At the time, he was asked if he would be able to say “no” to Ben Gvir if he got the post as chief.

“What do you mean? Why do you need to say ‘no?’ You need to understand the minister’s view, more or less. Up until now, I’ve never seen a minister tell me once [to] ‘do something,’” Sofer said.

The same month, the network reported that senior police officers, among them Shabtai, had expressed opposition to Sofer’s prospective selection as police chief.

Since taking office late last year, Ben Gvir has sought to exert more influence over the police, leading to a sour relationship with Shabtai. The National Security Ministry oversees the police force and Border Police.

Shabtai said in June that he will end his term in January and won’t seek an additional year in office.

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