Report: Ben Gvir threatens he could replace police chief ‘within days’ if he chooses

Citing private conversations, Channel 12 says incoming national security minister angry at Kobi Shabtai for speaking against his proposed bill to expand his powers

MK Itamar Ben Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai shake hands at an Arrangements Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai shake hands at an Arrangements Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who is expected to become the minister in charge of police in Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospective government, has raised the possibility of dismissing Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, according to a television report Saturday.

Channel 12 news reported remarks Ben Gvir made in “private conversations” — often code for statements given to reporters unofficially — saying he would give Shabtai a chance but that he could replace him “within days” if he so chooses.

During a Knesset panel discussion Wednesday on proposed legislation to give Ben Gvir expanded powers over the police, Shabtai said he was not opposed to change in principle, but criticized the current bill’s phrasing, asserted it would have “dramatic consequences” on police operations and stressed it needed to be thoroughly evaluated.

“I’m disappointed in him,” Channel 12 cited Ben Gvir as saying. “He can’t blindside me and oppose my bill after conveying the opposite message to me before the discussions.”

Earlier Saturday, in an interview with the network, Ben Gvir said he had no plans to fire Shabtai.

Ben Gvir is set to become national security minister in the new government — a newly created role replacing that of public security minister — which will give him oversight of police. The ministry will also control Border Police forces in the West Bank, which currently answer to the military.

The legislation sought by Ben Gvir would add a clause to the current police ordinance stipulating that the police commissioner is fully subordinate to the national security minister and specifying that only the minister can determine “policy and general principles” for the police. At present, the commissioner has greater freedom to dictate policy while consulting with the minister.

Critics of the reform have claimed the new law would destroy the police’s independence from political interference, although Ben Gvir has argued it is critical in order to enable the overseeing minister to assert his preferred policies.

Kan news reported Saturday that the presumed incoming coalition does not expect the bill to pass before the government is sworn in, likely at the end of the month.

Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend the Bat Mitzah of Ben Gvir’s daughter, in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, December 8, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Channel 12 on Saturday also reported that personal security had been boosted for Ben Gvir at his home in Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, due to threats from Palestinians. The report did not cite any sources.

Ben Gvir, a far-right firebrand, has been accused of fomenting violence in recent years with incendiary visits to areas of East Jerusalem — including, reportedly, by Shabtai.

A disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir kept a picture of the perpetrator of the 1994 Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre on his wall until he began to rise in national politics. He was convicted in 2007 of the crimes of support for a terrorist organization and incitement to racism, though he insists he has moderated in recent years.

He is a not-infrequent critic of police enforcement efforts against Jewish nationalists and what he considers a too-soft approach toward non-Jewish suspects. He has also called for Jewish prayer to be allowed on the Temple Mount, where courts have given police leeway to set policy on enforcing rules prohibiting non-Muslim worship.

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