Police chief says he’ll work with Ben Gvir, whom he reportedly blamed for 2021 riots

Kobi Shabtai says he has ‘no problem’ with far-right lawmaker, who is demanding the police ministry in coalition negotiations

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai. (Composite/Flash90)
Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai. (Composite/Flash90)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Monday denied harboring any ill will toward Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who is a top candidate to become the next public security minister, in charge of law enforcement.

The remarks seemed to contradict reports of bad blood between the two in recent years, during which Shabtai reportedly accused the far-right lawmaker of stoking flames between Jews and Arabs in East Jerusalem and beyond.

But on Monday, Shabtai insisted in remarks to reporters that there are no issues between him and Ben Gvir and that they shook hands several times in recent months.

“There’s no reason for us to hold a reconciliation because we never clashed,” Shabtai said, denying reports of a potential rapprochement meeting between police representatives and Ben Gvir before the lawmaker may enter the role of public security minister.

Ben Gvir last week said he will demand the ministry in coalition negotiations and reportedly asked to be granted expanded authority as public security minister during a meeting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said Ben Gvir is a candidate for the post.

After his bloc won a majority of Knesset seats in last week’s election, Netanyahu is set to form a new right-religious government including Ben Gvir and his extremist Otzma Yehudit faction, which is part of the Religious Zionism alliance.

Asked whether he’d have any issue working with Ben Gvir, Shabtai said, “they will choose who they choose, we’re in a democratic nation.”

“I’ll go along with anything,” he said, signaling that he hopes things will remain calm within the defense establishment.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir holds a press conference at his makeshift office in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah toghether with a Jewish resident, February 14, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

“I have no problem with anyone,” he added.

In May 2021, during Israel’s conflict with Gaza terror groups, Shabtai reportedly blamed Ben Gvir for deadly riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, the worst Israel had seen in decades.

“The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir,” Hebrew media quoted Shabtai as having told then-prime minister Netanyahu at the time, blaming the escalation on the lawmaker’s “provocations in Sheikh Jarrah.” Tensions in the flashpoint East Jerusalem neighborhood were a contributing factor in the start of the conflict. Ben Gvir had set up an ad hoc office in the neighborhood to support Israelis attempting to move into the area, sparking clashes with Palestinian residents.

Netanyahu’s associates have claimed he is not afraid to entrust the sensitive public security portfolio to Ben Gvir.

Over the past few months, Netanyahu’s associates have held many conversations with Ben Gvir. They claimed they found him to be pragmatic and agreed that he would get the funding he wants for the fight against crime but would not endanger the government on sensitive issues such as the Temple Mount.

Ben Gvir, who was not drafted for mandatory military service by the IDF because of his extremist activities, claimed last week that hundreds of police officers had appealed to him to “save the police.” Therefore, he said at a press conference, “I intend to demand the post of public security minister in the right-wing government that, with God’s help, will be established.”

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks to Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (second from right) for informal coalition talks at a Likud party office in Tel Aviv on November 7, 2022. (Courtesy)

The far-right MK has, in the last year, twice pulled his personal sidearm in recent confrontations, once with Arab security guards in a Tel Aviv parking lot and another time when confronted by Palestinian protestors during a tour of an East Jerusalem neighborhood.

As public security minister, Ben Gvir would have control over police policy on the Temple Mount, where activists have increasingly clamored for expanded Jewish rights at the holy site. The status quo on the Temple Mount formulated in 1967 has long been to ban public Jewish prayer and the use of prayer items, such prayer shawls and tefillin.

In past election campaigns, Netanyahu said Ben Gvir — who has been convicted for incitement to violence and has said he would encourage Arab citizens to emigrate — was not fit to hold a cabinet post. But during the campaign, amid Ben Gvir’s growing popularity in polls, Netanyahu backtracked, saying the MK could “certainly” hold a ministerial position in his next government.

Netanyahu met Ben Gvir for informal coalition talks in Tel Aviv on Monday. The two were pictured for the first time together after Netanyahu refused to publicly appear alongside the far-right lawmaker during the election campaign. Ben Gvir reiterated his demand for the public security ministry during the meeting, Channel 12 reported.

Ben Gvir said afterward that “a full, full right-wing government” was on the way.

“The meeting was held in a good atmosphere. We are on our way to establishing a full, full right-wing government, that will look people in the eye, some of whom are afraid to walk around the Negev and Galilee, return their security, and return their governance. We have a lot of work,” Ben Gvir said in a statement following the meeting.

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