Police chief laments ‘breakdown of trust’ in ties with Ben Gvir

In candid interview, Kobi Shabtai says relationship with far-right minister ‘not simple’ following leak of private conversation with minister seemingly meant to embarrass him

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a special Knesset debate, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a special Knesset debate, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said there’s been a “breakdown of trust” in his relationship with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, with whom he has repeatedly quarreled over the past five months since the new coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office, handing the police ministry to the far-right politician.

In an interview with Channel 12 news Wednesday, Shabtai spoke candidly of tough moments in the past few months and disclosed that he had thought about resigning as police commissioner over Ben Gvir’s interventions in police matters. Since taking office, Ben Gvir has sought to exercise more direct control over police operations and personnel, including a botched attempt to remove Tel Aviv District Police Commander Amichai Eshed from his post in March.

In the interview, an excerpt of which was posted on Wednesday ahead of the full broadcast Thursday, Shabtai said his working relationship with Ben Gvir was “not simple” following an incident last month in which the far-right minister appeared to have leaked a private conversation to embarrass the police chief.

In early April, a transcript of a phone conversation between Ben Gvir and Shabtai leaked in which the top cop said it was part of the “nature” and “mentality” of Arab Israelis to kill each other, amid a surging crime wave that has claimed the lives of dozens of members of Israel’s Arab communities since the beginning of the year.

The comments were made during a conversation that the two men were having about a national guard that Ben Gvir is seeking to establish, ostensibly in part to combat record-high crime rates in Arab communities.

“One murder after another. It has crossed every line. We need a strong national guard,” Ben Gvir was quoted to have said in the leaked transcript.

National Security Minister Itamar ben Gvir and Israeli Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai at a ceremony for the opening of a new police station in the Neot Hovav Industrial zone, southern Israel, March 14, 2023. (Flash90)

“Mr. Minister, there is nothing that can be done. They kill each other. That is their nature. That is the mentality of the Arabs,” Shabtai responded.

Ben Gvir and Shabtai had already been feuding intensely for days over the national guard, with the police commissioner warning against placing the nascent force under the authority of the far-right minister. The decision to leak damning contents of their private conversation appeared to bring ties between the minister in charge of the police and the commissioner to a new low.

Shabtai, in the Channel 12 clip, said the incident was “frustrating” and added that “there’s a certain breakdown of trust.”

“I said what I had to say” about the matter to Ben Gvir, he said.

Concerns about carefully navigating conversations with the minister lest he leak comments to the press were “complicated” yet warranted, he added.

At the time, Shabtai’s office fumed at the publication of the comments, saying they had been taken out of context and dealt with general trends in Arab society.

The decision to leak the conversation “calls into question the ability of the police to report to the minister without fearing the disclosure of sources or that the conversations will be distorted,” Shabtai’s office said.

In his Channel 12 interview, Shabtai also lamented his “personal conduct” in the removal of Eshed from his post, which he had approved. The sacking was eventually frozen by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said she suspected it had been made under undue political influence.

Tel Aviv District Police Chief Amichai Eshed speaks to the media at the scene of a terror attack on Dizengoff Street, in central Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Ben Gvir and Shabtai have repeatedly tussled over the police response to massive nationwide protests against government plans to rein in the judiciary, with the minister pushing for cops to take more aggressive measures against demonstrators, whom he terms “anarchists.”

In early March, Ben Gvir announced that he was removing the Tel Aviv police chief after grousing that cops had been treating protesters with kid gloves and allowing them to block roads and the Ayalon Highway. Eshed was on vacation and his deputy was in charge during mass protests in Tel Aviv on March 1, when police appeared to use a heavier hand with protesters, leading to several injuries but winning praise from Ben Gvir.

Shabtai had approved Eshed’s demotion, apparently amid longstanding tensions with the top officer, and both he and Ben Gvir have insisted the removal had been planned in advance. But Ben Gvir has also said his decision to make the move was tied to the commander’s handling of the mass protests in Tel Aviv since January.

The police chief has admitted that the timing of the firing had been an error.

“I understood that I did something that wasn’t me,” he said in the Channel 12 interview.

Asked if he would stay on another year as police chief, Shabtai said he was thinking about it and that it would be up to Ben Gvir.

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