UN asks for details on ‘Ben Gvir law’ cementing expanded political power over police

International body issues request as part of review of Israel’s implementation of the 2005 Convention against Corruption

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a handover ceremony, after taking over the police ministry from outgoing minister Omer Barlev, Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a handover ceremony, after taking over the police ministry from outgoing minister Omer Barlev, Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The United Nations has reportedly requested more information from Israel on a contentious piece of legislation passed in late December that cemented broad political control over the Israel Police.

The law, pushed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir as a condition of joining the ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, explicitly grants the far-right lawmaker the authority to direct general police policy and influence policy relating to investigations, after consulting with the police commissioner and hearing the attorney general’s opinion.

After amending existing police regulations, the law states that the government has “authority” over the Israel Police and places Ben Gvir, as national security minister, “in charge of” the force on behalf of the government.

Channel 13 reported Saturday that the UN put in the request as part of a routine review of Israel’s implementation of the 2005 United Nations Convention against Corruption, a legally binding, international anti-corruption treaty to which Israel is a signatory. The treaty puts together a framework of standards and measures signatories must implement to fight corruption in public office, law enforcement, civil service, and other sectors.

The UN’s request is being handled by the Justice Ministry, according to the report, and comes as a special Knesset committee is set to discuss on Sunday other far-reaching provisions that were removed from the legislation before it was approved, and which Ben Gvir had vowed to keep pursuing.

The explosive provisions make the police commissioner formally subordinate to Ben Gvir, as well as give the minister free rein to develop policy on investigations and police prosecution.

These were removed from the law in response to pressure from the attorney general’s office, which objected to the clauses’ undermining of the independence of the police force.

Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari said at the time that the more expansive draft of the law did not establish a proper power balance between the police minister and the police commissioner. Furthermore, she lamented that Ben Gvir declined to include language stipulating that the police force is an apolitical organ.

Channel 13 showed clauses [in Hebrew] from a document drafted by the attorney general’s office that argued the law weakens the independence of the police and that the proposed provisions could place Israel in a position of scrutiny and criticism by international organizations.

The attorney general’s office wrote that there was a “significant fear of political involvement in the activities of the police in the most sensitive areas related to basic human rights” like the freedom of expression, the freedom to protest, and the rights of suspects and those charged with crimes.

The proposed provisions could have an influence on [Israel’s] legal system and the rule of law,” the document reads.

Ben Gvir’s office said in a statement to Channel 13 that the attorney general’s office “does not understand that there is an elected government in Israel and that the minister should not be a figurehead.”

“There is no democratic country in the world where the police commissioner does not receive instructions from the political echelon or from elected officials, only in Israel – a banana republic,” his office said.

Ben Gvri’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party had also secured agreements with Netanyahu’s Likud to slice off the Border Police from the Israel Police and place the gendarmerie force under the direct control of his national security ministry, handing Ben Gvir control over a force that carries out sensitive operations in the West Bank, is in charge of quelling Palestinian riots and protests, and responsible for policing demonstrations within Israel as well.

In the lead-up to the last election in November, Ben Gvir campaigned on a tough-on-crime and tough-on-terror message. To push his internal security and law-and-order agenda, Ben Gvir said that he wanted more control over setting police policies and priorities, in line with the principle that the minister holding responsibility for a post should have concomitant authority.

During the days of committee discussion ahead of the December vote approving his expanded powers, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai countered that the minister is already able to influence police policy, though not call operational shots.

Ben Gvir said in the committee discussions that he believes increased ministerial power would help him better battle perennial societal plagues, including protection-money schemes in the south, vandalism against farmers, lawlessness on the roads, and harassment of women.

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