To okay overhaul delay, Ben Gvir gets promise for ‘national guard’ under his control

Deal cut after national security minister reportedly threatened to quit coalition over decision to halt judicial legislation; critics slam move as handing Ben Gvir private militia

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a rally in support of the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a rally in support of the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir announced Monday that he had agreed to back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for a pause on judicial overhaul legislation in exchange for a promise to create his long-sought “national guard.”

Ben Gvir circulated a letter to media outlets dated Monday and signed by Netanyahu, in which the prime minister vowed to raise the issue of forming such a body within the National Security Ministry in the upcoming cabinet meeting this Sunday.

The announcement came after Ben Gvir reportedly threatened to quit the government, endangering the coalition, if Netanyahu moved ahead with a plan to halt the judicial overhaul legislation.

Netanyahu, however, did not make any reference to such a deal in his speech Monday evening, when he announced a halt to the legislation until the Knesset returns from its Passover recess.

“The reform will pass. The national guard will be established. The budget that I demanded for the National Security Ministry will pass in full,” Ben Gvir tweeted on Monday evening. “Nobody will scare us. Nobody will succeed in changing the decision of the people.”

Labor MK Gilad Kariv criticized Netanyahu’s promise to Ben Gvir, tweeting: “The national guard must be under the police, rather than under the control of [far-right group] Lehava and the rest of the Kahanists” — a reference to followers of extremist anti-Arab rabbi Meir Kahane.

File: MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen with head of the racist Lehava organization Bentzi Gopstein in a protest tent amid high tensions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Kariv urged the Shin Bet security service to publicly oppose forming a “Ben Gvir law-approved militia.”

Former Israel Police chief Moshe Karadi said Ben Gvir would be forming “a private militia for his political needs” and would “recruit the Hilltop Youth” settler extremists to its ranks. “He’s dismantling Israeli democracy.” Karadi called legislation to this effect “dangerous and a distinct characteristic of turning Israel into a dictatorship.”

He said it was unthinkable to establish a force that would report directly to the minister. “You cannot have an operational force that doesn’t report to the police commissioner,” he said.

Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben-Barak mocked Ben Gvir for publicizing the letter, since it proves that “he doesn’t trust [Netanyahu’s] word… It’s incredible that there are people who still believe Bibi [Netanyahu].”

Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh tweeted that “in the right-wing government, criminals appoint judges and terrorists run a private army. Every democrat must fight against this insanity at any price!”

Ben Gvir has long called for the creation of a so-called national guard under his direct control.

He has said that he seeks to establish a volunteer national guard that would be deployed in times of ethnic unrest, such as the May 2021 Jewish-Arab race riots that took place in some Israeli cities, against a background of war with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Last month, he confirmed to The Times of Israel that he still plans to incorporate the entirety of the Border Police into a new national guard, as part of a push to boost the policing power of an understaffed force, although it was unclear how the move would accomplish that goal.

The Border Police is formally a part of the police and ultimately reports to the police commissioner, although parts of it fall under the military’s operational command.

Illustrative: Border Police officers patrol in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Gvir in January presented a framework for the national guard, which had some similar characteristics to an arrangement proposed by his predecessor, former public security minister Omer Barlev, and then-prime minister Naftali Bennett. However, the earlier plan saw the Border Police operating alongside the national guard, rather than as part of it.

Barlev and Bennett approved a plan to create an “Israeli guard,” composed of active-duty and reserve officers and volunteers trained by Border Police professionals. Since the announcement last June, the idea has struggled to find purchase.

Ben Gvir in January said that the national guard would fall under Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai’s command, rather than under his direct authority, as proposed in Otzma Yehudit’s December coalition agreement.

However, Ben Gvir is currently pushing for contentious legislation to make the police commissioner formally subordinate to the national security minister.

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