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Police commissioner tells cops he won’t let politics penetrate into the force

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai sent a letter to officers on Friday assuring them that he would not allow politics to influence the operation of the force, as the incoming government readies to pass legislation that will expand far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir’s authority over cops as the next national security minister.

“The political winds will not penetrate the Israel Police as they have not penetrated until today,” Shabtai wrote, saying he intends to “stand guard in order to ensure that the Israel Police continues to be strong and that its independence will not be compromised.”

“This is our duty as police officers. This is my personal duty as commissioner of the Israel Police, and I intend to fulfill it,” he added.

But the letter was sent just hours after Shabtai attended the bat mitzvah party for one of Ben Gvir’s daughters in the Kiryat Arba settlement in what some critics lamented as a further effort by the police chief to cozy up to a lawmaker who may effectively be his boss in the next government, given the legislation the next coalition is hoping to pass.

The bill submitted by Ben Gvir will radically redefine the relationship between police and politicians, giving the police minister far more authority over cops than ever before in the history of the state, according to a copy of the proposal released Thursday.

Ben Gvir is set to become national security minister in the new government — a newly created role replacing that of public security minister — which will give him oversight of police. The new ministry that he’ll head will also control the Border Police force in the West Bank, which currently answers to the military.

Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai attend the Bat Mitzah of Ben Gvir’s daughter, in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, December 8, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The bill dictates that it is the minister who will set policy, relegating the police commissioner to the role of administrator charged with carrying out said policy. Currently, the commissioner sets policy in consultation with the minister, and the shift will seemingly give Ben Gvir, an oft-convicted far-right activist, wide control over a police force he has long been at odds with.

It also provides the minister broad powers to decide which issues do or do not merit tougher investigation and enforcement.

The bill stipulates that the minister will not be able to dictate the opening or closing of specific probes, such as investigations into politicians suspected of wrongdoing. However, the minister will be authorized to set general policy on investigations and the handling of cases.

Upon learning of the bill, Shabtai told confidants that he will not become “anyone’s puppet,” nor would he allow the police’s independence to be compromised, which he demonstrated by moving forward with the appointments of a pair of senior officers against the objections of Ben Gvir who had demanded that the commissioner wait until he assumed his ministerial post, Haaretz reported

But Shabtai’s decision to attend the Ben Gvir bat mitzvah exposed him to criticism within the force, from officers who argued that he should not be making such gestures for a lawmaker who is not even a minister yet, especially when the MK is bent on shifting the balance of power in the police, Haaretz said.

Ben Gvir, a far-right firebrand, has been accused of fomenting violence in recent years with incendiary visits to areas of East Jerusalem — by Shabtai among others.

Far-right Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a terror attack near the entrance to Jerusalem, on November 23, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir kept a picture of the perpetrator of the 1994 Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre on his wall until he began to rise in national politics. He was convicted in 2007 of the crimes of support for a terrorist organization and incitement to racism, though he insists he has moderated in recent years.

News of the bill sparked an outcry and Ben Gvir on Friday called on his political opponents to tone down their opposition, saying they were likely to spark an “intifada,” or Palestinian uprising.

“I call on Prime Minister Yair Lapid and ministers Benny Gantz and Omer Barlev — stop stirring up the environment, you could, God forbid, end up causing an intifada.”

“It’s fine for there to be criticism, I’m one of those who believe that in a democracy the minister should set policy,” he said calling on them to settle differences “politely.”

Lapid’s Yesh Atid reacted angrily to his comments.

“A convicted criminal, a terror supporter and target of the Shin Bet who never served a day in the IDF won’t teach us about national responsibility. The appointment of Ben Gvir as public security minister is the sure way to ensure a third intifada and an international disaster,” the party said in a statement.

The incoming Likud-led coalition — which along with Otzma Yehudit will include two other far-right factions and a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties — is expected to seek to speedily pass the bill granting Ben Gvir expanded powers over police before the new government is sworn in.

Netanyahu asked Thursday for a two-week extension of his mandate to form a government, which is due to expire on December 11. Likud will reportedly use the additional time, which President Isaac Herzog is likely to grant, for a legislative blitz aimed at passing the bill and several other pieces of legislation needed to fulfill existing coalition commitments.

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