Societal divisions ‘could lead to disaster,’ Shin Bet chief says in stark warning

Making rare public comments, Ronen Bar says schisms sparked by judicial overhaul could cause catastrophe ‘from which we will not be able to recover’

Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar speaks at a ceremony for late president Chaim Herzog at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershon/GPO)
Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar speaks at a ceremony for late president Chaim Herzog at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershon/GPO)

The head of the Shin Bet security service warned on Sunday that the escalating divisions in society could prove disastrous for the nation, adding his voice to a host of past and current security leaders who have expressed alarm about the fallout from the government’s judicial overhaul.

Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar’s rare public warning came during a speech at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem commemorating Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel.

“I am sure that if we could consult with [Herzog] today and hear his opinion, he would be very disturbed by the language, the exclusion, the division, the unimaginable ease of online defamation — which could lead to a disaster from which we will not be able to recover,” Bar said.

He added that he believes Herzog, the father of current president Isaac Herzog, would be comforted to know that the Shin Bet “has always operated under a set of clear values… its needle always points in one direction. And that needle, even now, will not move one degree, neither to the right nor to the left.”

The government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has set off massive public protests and backlash in the security forces with its push to curtail the judiciary, and other divisive policies.

Bar’s direct predecessor as Shin Bet chief, Nadav Argaman, said last month that the overhaul could lead to security agencies “collapsing from within.” Argaman was appointed by Netanyahu to head the Shin Bet in 2016 and led the force for five years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In February, over 400 Shin Bet agents sent a letter to Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a former chief of the agency, urging him not to back the government’s plan and warning that it was fracturing society and threatening democracy.

Netanyahu last week fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for warning that the conflict over the legislation was causing a rift that extended into the military and raising a “tangible” threat to national security. The announcement set off huge, fiery protests across the country, prompting the prime minister to pause the overhaul and enter talks with the opposition.

Protest leaders believe the government intends to still go through with the full legislative package — some coalition members have vowed to soon pick up right where they left off — and massive rallies have continued. Thousands have also protested in support of the judicial overhaul.

While opposition parties have been engaged in talks with the coalition mediated by Herzog since Tuesday, few expect them to yield an agreement and trust that Netanyahu is negotiating in good faith is in short supply.

Negotiators reportedly believe the talks are dead on arrival, as the coalition has demanded it end up with control of the Judicial Selection Committee, a non-starter for the opposition.

Before the legislation was frozen, hundreds of reserve air force pilots, along with other reservists, had begun holding out on attending training sessions in protest, sparking widespread alarm about Israel’s security. The leaders of the reservist pilots’ protest announced Tuesday that they would resume training and operational activity after the controversial legislative plan was paused, but indicated that they were remaining alert in case it was revived.

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

An array of former high-level security officials have warned that the schisms in society could have dire implications for security and the country’s future.

The fallout from the judicial overhaul has also frayed relations with the US, prompted labor strikes and elicited warnings from legal experts, finance officials, academics, business leaders and others.

Other government decisions have also sparked widespread alarm, including Netanyahu granting far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir a national guard unit.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai issued a grave warning about the initiative, cautioning that separating the new force from the police would severely harm public security and cause chaos in law enforcement.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara also sounded the alarm Sunday, telling the government that there is a “legal hindrance” to the current version of the proposal and that the police can deal with the challenges they face without needing a competing body.

Bar also reportedly voiced opposition in closed meetings to the formation of the national guard, a focus of the weekend’s protest against the government.

Israelis protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Netanyahu is widely believed to have agreed to form the national guard in exchange for Ben Gvir cooperating with the premier’s suspension of the judicial shakeup legislation.

The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.

Polls have repeatedly shown that the government legislation in its current form is broadly unpopular with the public.

Bar, in his comments Sunday, also sounded an alarm about the security situation, and issued a warning to Israel’s enemies.

“We are in a complex and sensitive period for security. The scope of the alerts about terrorist attacks is unprecedented,” he said. “The Shin Bet, together with our partners in the IDF, the Mossad, and the police are thwarting terrorist attacks day after day, and night after night, both near and far.”

“I wouldn’t advise our enemies to test the unity and resolve of the nation of Israel in the face of any threats,” he said.

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