Member of Knesset and National Security Minister-designate Itamar Ben-Gvir and Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai engaged in a public argument during a Knesset hearing on Wednesday over the so-called “Ben-Gvir Bill,” which is intended to shift significant powers from the commissioner to the minister who oversees the police.
“It is difficult to exaggerate the effect of the bill, which I think will have a dramatic influence not only in regards to police activity but also over the perception of the police by the entire public,” said Shabtai, who opposes the legislation. “Drastic changes should be made with caution.”
Ben-Gvir, who interrupted Shabtai several times, said: “I have delved into this issue and the proposed model works well in other democratic countries. To one’s great amazement, the commissioner in these countries did not quit and no militias were formed there.”
The exchange continued, and Shabtai said: “As the commissioner, I know how to create the necessary change. The minister currently holds many powers.” Ben-Gvir replied: “Currently the minister has no power regarding policy issues.”
The existing law gives most of the power over police priorities to the commissioner. The minister’s principal authority consists of appointing the commissioner and other senior officers, and he is very limited in directing policy and taking significant administrative and strategic decisions.
During his election campaign, Ben-Gvir promised to “restore governability,” especially in the Negev, where there has been a surge in crimes committed by members of the Bedouin population. Ben-Gvir also vowed to wage war on crime and violence in Israeli-Arab society in general.
He also promised to eradicate the widespread phenomenon of agricultural crime, in which mostly Bedouin and Israeli-Arab gangs steal livestock, crops and mechanical equipment from Jewish farmers.
According to Ben-Gvir, he will be unable to deliver on his promises unless the law is changed.
“Those who oppose the bill do not have a problem with the reform it is proposing, they have a personal problem with me and with the fact that I am going to be the minister in charge of the police,” he said on numerous occasions during the last few weeks.
The discussion on Wednesday was held by a special committee formed to process the bill before the final votes in the Knesset plenary, after it passed a preliminary reading on Tuesday in a 61 to 53 vote.
During the discussion, Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari opposed the bill, saying “this proposal will undermine the police’s independence and does not include checks and balances on the minister’s new powers. Therefore, it holds a significant potential to cause serious damage to the core principles of the democratic system in Israel.”
Ben-Gvir responded: “It is no secret that there is an organized campaign to cast fear over the public. There is not a single other democracy in the world in which the minister is unable to determine policy.”
Relations between Ben-Gvir and Shabtai were tense even before it was announced that Ben-Gvir is slated to become the minister in charge of the police. Over the past year, Shabtai said more than once that Ben-Gvir incites violence, particularly in Jerusalem. Ben-Gvir called Shabtai “a failed and weak commissioner” and said he should resign his position.