ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Top candidate for police chief won’t say if he’ll obey High Court or government

Yoram Sofer declines to answer when quizzed on how he would act in a constitutional crisis should police minister reject court striking down laws

National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer present a new proposal to eradicate crime in the Arab community, in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer present a new proposal to eradicate crime in the Arab community, in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A leading candidate to become the next commissioner of the Israel Police declined on Thursday to say whom he would obey if a constitutional crisis forced him to choose between the High Court of Justice and the government.

The court is set to hold hearings next month on petitions demanding that two laws passed by the current hard-right government be struck down, and there are growing calls within the coalition for the political leadership to disobey a potential ruling of this sort.

Such a scenario would plunge Israel into a deep constitutional crisis, and could put the police in the position of having to choose whether to obey the government or the court.

At a Jerusalem press briefing to present a plan for dealing with rampant deadly crime in the Arab community, Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer was asked how he would act if such a crisis were to arise.

“I am a public servant, I am a man of the law. I think these questions are not relevant to the [crime] issue,” he responded as he sat next to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees police and is said to favor Sofer as the next chief of the force.

His remarks came a day after current Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai publicly clashed with Ben Gvir on the matter by stating that the force must comply with the law. The minister insists police obey elected officials.

Speaking at the press conference, Ben Gvir said he sees “no contradiction” between what Shabtai said Wednesday and his own position, as it is the elected government that determines the laws that police enforce.

“Certainly the police should obey the law,” Ben Gvir said. “The law and the police are subject to the minister’s policy.”

Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov ‘Kobi’ Shabtai addresses a State Control Committee meeting at the Knesset on June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By law, he continued, all the state’s security services “are subject to the policy of the political echelon. Therefore, there is no contradiction. The political echelon determines legal policies, and the bodies implement them. That’s how it works in a democracy.”

On Wednesday, Shabtai took a clear stand, declaring at a police ceremony: “I am saying this unequivocally — the police have only one compass, always, the law and the statutes. As long as I am [the police force’s] commander, the law will rule and [the force] will act only in accordance with it.”

Ben Gvir, who was also at that ceremony, spoke after Shabtai and said, “Our police force is apolitical. The principles of democracy are that the nation goes to the ballot box and has its say, and those elected need to set a policy. This policy is the policy that everyone must abide by.”

While the government says the overhaul is need to rein in what it sees as an overreaching court system, opponents say it will sap the courts of power to act as a check and balance to parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character.

Sofer has indicated he would back Ben Gvir’s calls for a tough police stance against protesters who for months have held mass demonstrations against the government’s plan to drastically remake the judiciary.

In an interview with Channel 12 in June, Sofer boasted of dealing “forcefully” with anti-government protesters.

At the time, he was asked if he would be able to say “no” to Ben Gvir if he got the post as chief.

“What do you mean? Why do you need to say ‘no?’ You need to understand the minister’s view, more or less. Up until now, I’ve never seen a minister tell me once [to] ‘do something,’” Sofer said.

The same month, the network reported that senior police officers, among them Shabtai, had expressed opposition to Sofer’s prospective selection as police chief.

According to Channel 12, citing leaked comments from a closed meeting that month, Shabtai said that “the police have a united policy and it does not change. We will continue as we have done until today — we will allow freedom of expression as is the custom in a democratic country. Everyone has the right to protest.”

Since taking office late last year, Ben Gvir has sought to exert more influence over the police, leading to a sour relationship with Shabtai. The National Security Ministry oversees the police force and Border Police.

Shabtai said in June that he will end his term in January and won’t seek an additional year in office.

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