Police chief to end term in January, after disputes with Ben Gvir

Kobi Shabtai will not seek additional year in office following repeated clashes with national security minister

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, left, and National Security Itamar Minister Ben Gvir at the Israel Police National Headquarters in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, left, and National Security Itamar Minister Ben Gvir at the Israel Police National Headquarters in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov (Kobi) Shabtai will end his term in January and not seek an additional year in his position, according to a joint statement on Wednesday from the police force and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Tensions between Shabtai and Ben Gvir have simmered since Ben Gvir took office last year and sought to exert more influence over the police. The national security ministry oversees the police force and Border Police.

The standard term for police commissioners in Israel is three years, but it is often extended by a fourth year.

During a Wednesday meeting, Shabtai and Ben Gvir also agreed on a series of high-profile appointments in the police force, the statement said.

Among them was Deputy Commissioner Peretz Amar who will replace Tel Aviv District chief Deputy Commissioner Amichai Eshed. Ben Gvir had previously tried and failed to fire Eshed over his supposedly lax handling of anti-government protesters. Eshed was appointed as head of the police training division, but it remained unclear if he would accept the role.

In March, Shabtai announced the reassignment of Eshed, in an order that was understood to have come from Ben Gvir’s office, following repeated road blockages in Tel Aviv by protesters against the government. Eshed was quoted as saying the protesters “are not against the police” and critics said he treated them leniently.

But Shabtai reversed the reassignment later that month, following a letter by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, which stated that the change should be put on hold because of “legal concerns as to the procedure.”

Ben Gvir and Shabtai also agreed Wednesday on the appointment of Deputy Commissioner Amir Cohen to head the southern district, while Deputy Commissioner Yoram Sofer will be appointed to head the fight against crime in the Arab community. Cohen currently is head of Border Police.

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

Shabtai said on Sunday that it was “no secret” that he would not seek a fourth year in his position “under these conditions.” The statement was seen as referring to his disputes with Ben Gvir.

Shabtai made the announcement in a speech that he delivered at the National Police Academy in Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, to Arab mayors who visited the complex.

“On a personal note, during my term as commissioner, for the past two-and-a-half years, I’d served under three cabinets and three ministers,” Shabtai said. “I have used the tools at my disposal to the best of my ability to preserve professional standards in accordance with protocol. It is no secret that I do not intend to serve a fourth year under these conditions.”

In his speech, Shabtai also complained that “the police is too small to carry out the missions assigned to it.” The situation is worsening, he said. “There aren’t enough patrol cars and officers.”

Arab Israelis are suffering from “a wave of murders,” he said in reference to the slaying of more than 100 Arab Israelis in 2023, most of them in gang warfare and score-settling between criminal enterprises. “We cannot accept such a reality,” Shabtai said.

In a filmed statement shortly after Shabtai’s speech, Ben Gvir thanked the police chief for “decades serving the citizens of Israel.”

Ben Gvir — a far-right lawmaker with a long history of arrests and convictions, including supporting a terrorist organization — acknowledged that he and Shabtai had “profound disagreements,” but that the police chief “has been for many years a strong and good fighter for the State of Israel.”

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