Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Tuesday stressed the importance of public trust in the force, amid tensions with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir over the latter’s prodding for officers to deal more aggressively with anti-government protesters.
Shabtai spoke alongside Ben Gvir during the inauguration of a new police station in the southern Bedouin town of Segev Shalom, which he called “a cornerstone upon which the police approach to action is based.”
“Our goal is clear and unequivocal: strengthening the sense of security,” Shabtai said. “But the Israel Police can’t do it alone. To provide optimal police services, a deep change is needed in obeying the law, community partnership, cooperation with the council head, dignitaries of the community, and most important the connection with the community.”
“The connection with the community is the condition for optimal police services,” he added.
Thanking officers, Shabtai said police were “doing the maximum” for Israeli citizens.
“Without public legitimacy, we have no right to exist as police,” he said.
Barring a handshake, Ben Gvir and Shabtai did not interact during the event, according to Channel 12 news.
In his own remarks, Ben Gvir alluded to reports that Shabtai had instructed subordinates to avoid direct contact with the minister due to him pressuring commanders during recent protests.
“There are those who say I [follow] too closely, ask too many questions, seek too many clarifications. But it’s in my soul. It’s my job,” he said.
Ben Gvir, whose ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party campaigned on a law and order message, also pledged “to do everything so personal security will be preserved.”
“We’ll work to build a strong connection between all those who are loyal and love this country… all those who want to live with true cooperation, true coexistence. But we’ll act with a strong hand against crime and illegal building,” he said.
Last week, Ben Gvir attempted to remove Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed after grousing that cops were treating protesters with kid gloves and allowing them to block roads and the Ayalon Highway. Police “didn’t follow my instructions throughout the day, both at the airport and on the Ayalon… They do whatever they want — it won’t continue,” he was reported to say.
On Friday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara froze the move, saying she suspected it had been made under undue political influence.
Shabtai had approved Eshed’s demotion, apparently amid longstanding tensions with the top officer, but admitted on Saturday that taking the step at the current time had been an error.
Eshed was on vacation during mass protests in Tel Aviv on March 1, when police came under criticism for using a heavier hand with protesters, leading to several injuries. His deputy oversaw those rallies, with police conduct then praised by Ben Gvir for its severe response toward unruliness.
Ben Gvir has also sought to bypass the attorney general, petitioning the High Court on Monday to allow him to appoint independent counsel in petitions against him and his ministry. The court rejected the bid on Tuesday.