Police chief said to speak out against possible replacement who backs Ben Gvir

In leaks from closed-door meeting, Commissioner Shabtai is heard saying force will preserve the right to protest as senior cops discuss coastal region chief Yoram Sofer

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)

Senior police officers, including Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, reportedly expressed opposition to a prospective top cop who has indicated that if selected, he would adopt far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s tough approach toward protesters against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul.

In leaked comments from a closed meeting on Tuesday, Shabtai said, according to Channel 12 news, that “the police have a united policy and it does not change. We will continue as we have done until today — we will allow freedom of expression as is the custom in a democratic country. Everyone has the right to protest.”

The officers were responding to comments made by Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer, who said protesters against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul were engaging in “thuggery.”

An unnamed officer holding the rank of superintendent reportedly said that “Yoram [Sofer] should probably brush up on his citizenship lessons in regards to the rights of citizens in the country.”

“His words are completely disconnected from the policies practiced in the districts of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the center in handling protests,” the superintendent said.

Another officer said that Sofer’s words are “cheap and embarrassing flattery by a chief who wants to be appointed commissioner and wants to dance to the tune of the appointing minister.”

Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov ‘Kobi’ Shabtai addresses a State Control Committee meeting at the Knesset on June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an interview with Channel 12 news broadcast earlier this week, Sofer said that he would not allow protesters to block streets.

“With me, they won’t shut down roads. They did, but I dealt with it forcefully,” Sofer said.

Asked why he felt a need to react forcefully, as he did recently when anti-overhaul protesters blocked roads near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Caesarea, Sofer responded: “Because thuggery is thuggery.”

“They didn’t close roads with me in protests against the judicial reforms,” Sofer said. “And when they blocked roads, I handled it with a heavy hand — that’s how I think it should be handled.”

“Whoever attacks officers is attacking the State of Israel, not me personally. Whoever spits on officers is spitting on the State of Israel and therefore if we need to arrest them, we’ll arrest them. If we need to disperse them, we’ll disperse them,” he said.

Sofer came to public attention in the wake of the protests outside Netanyahu’s residence in Caesarea. At a protest there earlier this month, 17 demonstrators were arrested and others were injured.

“There are no violent police officers,” Sofer said in the interview.

A photo circulated by police on June 2, 2023, shows officers at an anti-government protest outside the private home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Caesarea. (Israel Police)

Activists said that those who were detained were dispersed to multiple police stations in a move designed to intimidate them and make it more difficult for them to obtain legal counsel. Sofer denied the accusation.

He was also asked whether he would be able to say “no” to Ben Gvir should he be appointed commissioner.

“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,’” he said.

“I’m not a flatterer and I have no reason to flatter anyone. I believe in what I do. If that’s good for the minister, it’s good for him,” Sofer said.

When asked about the fact that Ben Gvir was arrested and charged dozens of times for his far-right activism, and was convicted for incitement to violence and supporting a terror group, Sofer said it did not interest him.

“It interests you, but it doesn’t interest me. There is an elected government and it determined who the ministers are. If it doesn’t suit me, I can get up and leave. I am a full democrat. The protester who shouts that the job of the police is to protect the citizens should trust me that I will do my job with clean hands,” Sofer said.

On Sunday, the High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction against a controversial law granting Ben Gvir increased powers over the police.

Last week, Hebrew media reported that Ben Gvir had decided not to extend the term of Police Commissioner Shabtai by an extra year, as is common.

The decision, leaked to the media, and not formally announced or conveyed to Shabtai, sparked an outcry, coming with the police chief overseas due to a family medical emergency.

Earlier in the week, it was reported that Ben Gvir had been holding a series of meetings with top police commanders, sounding them out as he seeks a new commissioner.

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