Police chief vows force to stay ‘apolitical,’ in apparent dig at Ben Gvir

Kobi Shabtai says cops will only act according to law, days after AG tells High Court that far-right minister may have ‘crossed the line’ by meddling in police operations

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (second right) speaks to officers at a police training facility near Kfar Sirkin, in central Israel, March 17, 2023. (Israel Police)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (second right) speaks to officers at a police training facility near Kfar Sirkin, in central Israel, March 17, 2023. (Israel Police)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai stressed Friday that the force will remain outside politics and function according to the law, in remarks that appeared directed at National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir amid escalating tensions between the far-right leader and law enforcement.

“The Israel Police will remain apolitical, the Israel Police will ensure professionalism and responsibility, and will act only according to the law,” Shabtai said at a training base in central Israel.

The police commissioner also thanked officers for the time and effort they’ve put in to protect the country’s citizens.

The comments came days after Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara reportedly said Ben Gvir may have “crossed the line” in recent interventions with police affairs and operational matters. She said he must refrain from giving operational instructions to police “under the guise of alleged policy directives.”

On Thursday, Ben Gvir issued a letter to fellow coalition party chiefs calling for Baharav-Miara to be sacked, claiming that she has been “serving as the de facto opposition leader.”

Ben Gvir was particularly irked by Baharav-Miara’s freezing of his decision to remove Tel Aviv District Police Commander Amichai Eshed from his post over the latter’s purported lenient treatment of protesters who blocked roads during demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

The attorney general said her move to freeze Eshed’s transfer — announced just after Ben Gvir publicly railed against him — was warranted amid concerns over Ben Gvir’s political motives. The minister has long called for a harsher stance against anti-government protesters, including mass arrests.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in the Traffic Police’s National Control Center with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Thursday, March 9, amid nationwide protests against the government’s judicial overhaul program. (Courtesy: Office of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir)

Ben Gvir’s other gripes included the attorney general’s opposition to legislation granting him expanded authority over the police, his effort to impose a lockdown over all of East Jerusalem in response to a terror wave, his legislation to expand death penalty sentences to those convicted of terrorism, and to legislation that would grant Israeli security forces immunity from prosecution for their actions during military operations — measures that critics warned would lead to massive violations of human rights.

Baharav-Miara’s response to the High Court came a day after Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon told a Knesset committee meeting that the legislation expanding Ben Gvir’s power over police policy has harmed the force’s operative independence and increased its politicization.

Limon cited examples such as Ben Gvir’s direct contact with police officials on specific operational matters and the recent uproar over the expected removal of Eshed from his command.

On Monday, Ben Gvir filed his own petition to the High Court asking it to authorize his request for private legal representation or allow him to represent himself, citing his lack of faith in Baharav-Miara’s ability to faithfully represent his positions in such legal proceedings due to her decision to halt Eshed’s removal.

The Attorney General’s Office almost always represents the government in legal proceedings against it or against legislation, and ministers must receive permission from that office to obtain independent counsel in a situation where the attorney general does not support the government’s position.

As well as heading the public prosecution service, the attorney general also serves as the chief legal counsel to the government and reviews government resolutions, administrative decisions and government-backed legislation to determine their legality. Her title in Hebrew is “Legal Adviser to the Government.”

In response to his petition, the High Court told Ben Gvir he must consult with the attorney general on his request for an independent counsel in legal motions against him before making a request from the court.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a legal conference in Haifa on January 12, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Ben Gvir — who is himself a lawyer — wrote in a letter to Baharav-Miara a day prior that said he believed he could not rely on her to represent him in ongoing or pending lawsuits and appeals: “I cannot trust you to faithfully represent me in the various petitions.” Therefore he “intended to represent himself,” he said.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly aimed criticism at Baharav-Miara when, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, he declared that “in a functioning democracy, the elected government is responsible for the army, the police and the other security agencies.”

“There is no one else to determine who will command these bodies, who will lead them and how they will be led,” Netanyahu charged.

Last month, Justice Minister Yariv Levin appeared to threaten to fire Baharav-Miara in the future, as the hardline government continued to find itself clashing with its most senior legal representative.

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