Police chief warns of potential for political assassination: ‘Lower the flames’

‘The situation keeps me awake at night,’ Kobi Shabtai says of deepening divisions over overhaul, pledges cops ‘will do everything we can to prevent harm to any public figure’

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks to Channel 12 in an interview aired on February 18, 2023. (Screenshot/Channel 12; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks to Channel 12 in an interview aired on February 18, 2023. (Screenshot/Channel 12; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai warned Saturday that the current political climate could lead to deadly violence, as he pleaded with Israelis to “lower the flames.”

“I came here [to the studio] for a reason. I’ve tried to refrain from these kinds of interviews. But the situation we’re in [in Israel] keeps me awake at night. We’re on a steep slope, of inflammatory argument, of people writing things without considering the impact they can have on the other side,” Shabtai told Channel 12 news.

“This is an opportunity to tell everyone to breathe, calm down, to discuss, and not to become violent in words or deeds… The State of Israel has already seen harm done to public figures,” he said.

“We saw a hand grenade thrown [with fatal consequences at a demonstration 40 years ago, killing Emil Grunzweig]. We saw the assassination of a prime minister,” Shabtai added, referring to the 1995 assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“We see these threats on social media,” he continued. “We have to lower the flames… we will do everything we can to prevent harm to any public figure.”

“All the security agencies… are doing our best to prevent a repetition.”

Shabtai’s remarks came amid deepening political divisions over the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system. In a recent television address, President Isaac Herzog urged the opposing sides to hold a dialogue on potential reforms to the judiciary, while warning that the country was on the verge of “societal collapse” from the tensions.

Israelis march during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Following the interview, police confirmed they would establish a “special team” to review incitement.

The team will “work to monitor and investigate threats and incitement to violence on social media and on any other media platform… The Israel Police will not allow violent discourse that incites violence and harm to public figures or any person,” the statement said.

Turning to recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Shabtai said police were operating against “perpetrators of crime and of terror” in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

He insisted the operations “surgically” target suspects and that the force was not interested in collective punishment.

“There are more than a few warnings of attacks, in recent weeks we’ve seen a tangible increase in the number of warnings. Our concern is the unknown — lone-wolf attackers. I wouldn’t call the situation now an intifada, but there is an escalation,” he said.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) speaks with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a car-ramming attack near Jerusalem’s Ramot, February 10, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

To help prevent attacks, Shabtai said citizens with gun licenses should carry their weapons, conceding that “it’s not possible to have police on every corner all the time.”

Earlier this month, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir expedited the civilian gun license process, reportedly leading to a sharp rise in the number of permits issued by the ministry’s Firearms Licensing Department.

Shabtai said there was a need for more weapons on the street, which “have succeeded in foiling attacks in the past.” He called for the licensing process to remain thorough so “weapons won’t end up in the wrong hands.”

In a segment of the interview aired Friday, the police commissioner insisted he would not step down from his post, after a lawmaker from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party warned that Shabtai would be removed if he did not start falling in line.

The declaration appeared to mark a further escalation in the power struggle between Shabtai and Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir, who recently lashed out at Jerusalem cops for not using force during an anti-government protest, and slammed officers over the demolition of an illegal West Bank grove.

“I am not resigning,” Shabtai said. “I say this in the clearest way possible: We operate according to the law. The law grants certain things to police officers, the commissioner and district commanders. No one can replace the commissioner or a district commander at their own discretion.”

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