Tel Aviv Police commander Amichai Eshed ended his tenure Wednesday, following his resignation amid a public spat between him and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir over his allegedly lenient approach to traffic disruptions during protests against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.
At a handover ceremony at the city’s police headquarters attended by Ben Gvir, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Eshed said: “We don’t have any other police force nor any other democracy — we mustn’t give up on either of them.”
Eshed has claimed “political considerations” were behind the decision earlier this year to transfer him to a lesser role, which has widely been seen as an intentional sidelining.
Ben Gvir and Shabtai said last month that Southern District Commander Deputy Commissioner Peretz Amar will replace Eshed in Tel Aviv. Shabtai, who also has a troubled relationship with Ben Gvir, revealed at the time that he would end his term in January and not seek an additional year in the role.
On Wednesday, as dozens rallied outside in support, Eshed said: “The events taking place on our watch are challenging more than ever the contract between the police and its citizens — events that underline the need to serve the public and defend the values of democracy, of the Israel Police, of morality and justice.”
Addressing his successor, he said: “Peretz, my friend, you are receiving the best officers, officers who safeguard democracy, with an innate sense of public service, who ended disruptions of order with no injuries to cop or civilian. This is the spirit of the Tel Aviv police.”
At the end of his remarks, Eshed did not shake hands with Ben Gvir or Shabtai.
In his speech, Ben Gvir hit back and said: “In this city, we need cops who don’t discriminate between right and left. In a democracy, everyone is equal — there are no first-class and second-class citizens.”
The minister, who as part of coalition talks obtained unprecedented control over police on matters of policy, added: “Governance is also required against those who seek to break the law and cause anarchy. Freedom of speech isn’t freedom to incite or to make people’s lives miserable.”
Ben Gvir added that despite their disagreements, he was thankful to Eshed “for everything you did with dedication.”
Shabtai, the police chief, noted that the Tel Aviv District’s police forces have been “dealing with highly complex incidents of public disruption,” adding that this posed “a challenge to the country, to society and to police.”
“We derive the police’s right to exist from the public,” he said. “It is important for the public to see a police officer not just as a law enforcer, but also as its emissary.”
Huldai, who has been vocal in his opposition to the overhaul and the current government, avoided focusing on “the elephant in the room,” because “I don’t intend to ruin the ceremony for you,” and because “I love the outgoing district commander very much, and I respect the incoming district commander very much.”
Eshed announced his resignation from the force on July 4, saying he was being demoted for refusing to use “disproportionate force” against protesters.
Eshed at the time lamented the “terrible [personal] cost of my choice to prevent civil war.”
“I could have easily used disproportionate force and filled the Ichilov [Medical Center] emergency room at the end of every demonstration in Tel Aviv. We could have cleared the Ayalon [Highway] within minutes at the terrible cost of cracking heads and breaking bones and at the cost of breaking the contract between police and the citizenry,” he said.
In March, Ben Gvir announced that, at Shabtai’s recommendation, he was transferring Eshed to a new position, after slamming Eshed’s handling of the mass protests. The move was briefly frozen by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who raised concerns that the timing of the transfer was politically motivated.
Both Shabtai and Ben Gvir have insisted that Eshed’s removal had been planned in advance. But Ben Gvir also said his decision to make the move at the time was tied to the commander’s ostensibly soft hand against the protests in Tel Aviv.
Shabtai approved Eshed’s removal, apparently in light of longstanding tensions with the top officer, but later admitted that the timing was an error.
Israel has been rocked by mass demonstrations since early January when the government unveiled its far-reaching plans to neuter the judicial system. Protesters have warned that the proposals would weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove key elements of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters claim it is a much-needed reform to rein in an overly activist court.