Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has instructed officials under him to avoid direct contact with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, according to multiple reports in Hebrew-language media Monday, the latest signal of intensifying friction between the nationalist cabinet member and government professionals.
“I alone am the liaison between the minister and the police,” Shabtai told senior officers Monday morning, according to the reports. “There are policies from the minister and we do our best to carry them out on the ground, with discretion.”
Ben Gvir and Shabtai have tussled recently 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.”
Leaks from the meeting to the Hebrew-language press exposed rifts within the police force over how to navigate around government moves to expand its power over the courts, though reports differed on the impetus for the meeting and the nature of Ben Gvir’s contacts with senior police commanders under Shabtai.
According to several news outlets, as protesters blocked roads and freeways on Thursday, Ben Gvir or his aides made a number of calls to police commanders in the field to press them on how many fines had been handed out or whether they had opened roads yet.
“We had a tough, complicated day, not just from the protesters, but also from pressure coming from the minister,” one commander told Ynet.
However, Channel 12 news reported that Shabtai had been responding to four police commanders holding a secret meeting with Ben Gvir to complain about the commissioner and allegations of favoritism when promoting officers.
The channel earlier reported that Ben Gvir or aides had on several occasions contacted police commanders underneath Shabtai during operations, bypassing the normal chain of command.
Commanders who met with the commissioner Monday were instructed that should Ben Gvir or his aides try to contact them again, they should refer them to Shabtai, the reports said.
Another source present in the meeting said commanders were told they should continue to act at their own discretion when handling protests.
“The instruction is not to clear blocked roads at any price,” the source told Ynet. “If a commander on the ground thinks it does not need to happen, they have full backing to decide that.”
A source close to Ben Gvir quoted by Hebrew media shrugged off Shabtai’s instructions, while claiming they were a result of pressure on him by protest leaders.
“We’re not getting worked up. The police chief is under intense pressure from the attorney general and leftist protesters embittering his wife’s life,” the source said.
The minister later posted on social media that he had met with police training to be senior officers, writing that “as police minister it is important for me to speak to them directly.”
שמחתי לפגוש היום בכנסת את השוטרים הנפלאים שלנו שנמצאים בקורס קצינים.
כשר הממונה על המשטרה היה חשוב לי לדבר איתם באופן אישי, לשבח אותם על עבודתם ולהבהיר שבמשמרת שלי למשטרה יהיה גיבוי מלא ואת כל הכלים בכדי לבצע את עבודתם על הצד הטוב ביותר.
עלו והצליחו! pic.twitter.com/w7Lfisfp9N
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) March 13, 2023
Officers have reportedly complained to Shabtai and others about being stuck between their duties and Ben Gvir’s requests, which do not always dovetail. One senior officer at the meeting, Investigations Divisions head Yigal Ben Shalom, called for officers to “protect the court system at all costs” and enforce court rulings, calling the planned overhaul “a threat to the judicial system.”
However, deputy police commissioner David Bitan argued that cops need to obey Ben Gvir. “You’re confused,” he shot back, according to a leaked transcript carried by several Hebrew media outlets. “There’s a minister, someone elected the minister, someone elected the government. We have to implement their policies. I’m glad someone finally came with policies and initiatives and brought money.”
Last week, Ben Gvir attempted to remove Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed after grousing that cops were treating protesters with kid gloves and allowing them to block roads and the Ayalon Highway. Police “didn’t follow my instructions throughout the day, both at the airport and on the Ayalon… They do whatever they want — it won’t continue,” he was reported to say.
On Friday Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara froze the move, saying she suspected it had been made under undue political influence.
Shabtai had approved Eshed’s demotion, apparently amid longstanding tensions with the top officer, but admitted on Saturday that taking the step at the current time had been an error.
Eshed was on vacation during mass protests in Tel Aviv on March 1, when police came under criticism for using a heavier hand with protesters, leading to several injuries. His deputy oversaw those rallies, with police conduct then praised by Ben Gvir for its severe response toward unruliness.
At the meeting Monday, Shabtai said he “apologized to Eshed for the timing and the way it was done.”
However Eshed retorted that “you technically apologized, but in essence, you really did not,” according to the leaked transcript.
Ben Gvir has also sought to bypass the attorney general, petitioning the High Court on Monday to allow him to appoint independent counsel in petitions against him and his ministry.
Ben Gvir complained to the High Court in his filing that he had no faith in the attorney general’s willingness to represent his position in legal proceedings, describing her behavior toward him as “illegal, unreasonable, disproportionate and unfair.”
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.