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Ben Gvir pans Shabtai after he claimed minister tried to politicize police — report

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir reportedly fumed after Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai gave an interview Thursday in which he said he prevented the far-right Otzma Yehudit chief from politicizing the police force.

Tensions between Shabtai and Ben Gvir have simmered since the far-right minister took office last year and sought to exert more influence over the police. The national security ministry oversees the police force and the Border Police.

Shabtai, who will end his three-year term as police chief in January, told the Yedioth Aharonoth daily that any time he would go “head to head” with Ben Gvir, the minister “lost.”

“I was one of the gatekeepers. I stopped attempts to politicize and control the police. I discovered that the minister is not satisfied with just listening and asking, but gives the officers ‘suggestions’ on how to act,” he said.

Shabtai stated that any time protesters tried to block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, Ben Gvir would “urge me to give orders different from those of Ami Eshed,” referencing the ousted Tel Aviv District chief.

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In March, Shabtai announced the reassignment of Eshed, in an order that was understood to have come from Ben Gvir’s office, following repeated road blockages in Tel Aviv by protesters. Eshed was quoted as saying the protesters “are not against the police” and critics including Ben Gvir felt he was too lenient.

File: Police’s Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

But Shabtai reversed the reassignment later that month, following a letter by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara who stated that the change should be put on hold because of “legal concerns as to the procedure.”

Eshed was eventually appointed as head of the police training division but decided to resign from the force in July.

According to Shabtai, his previous two bosses, the ruling Likud’s Amir Ohana, now Knesset speaker, and the Labor party’s Omer Barlev, were “very different people, but they knew their limits.”

In an interview with the right-wing Channel 14 network Friday, Ben Gvir appeared untroubled by the comments and claimed that Shabtai has a strategic adviser who told him to regularly speak out against him.

“He is a good commissioner, a good man, a strong fighter, but I am definitely looking for a commissioner who will carry out my policy. This office was neglected for many years,” Ben Gvir said.

The minister added that most police in the force embrace his policies.

“I am not ashamed. I came to write policy, I didn’t come to this ministry for a shift,” he added.

But behind closed doors, Ben Gvir called Shabtai a “failed commissioner, a little boy,” and claimed the police chief tried to convince him to extend his term, according to Channel 12 news on Friday.

File: Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul and in response to the removal of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“Kobi requested many, many times that I extend his term for a fourth year,” Ben Gvir reportedly claimed in an unspecified meeting. The standard term for police commissioners in Israel is three years, but it is often extended by a fourth year.

Shabtai said in June that it was “no secret” that he would not seek a fourth year in his position “under these conditions.” The statement was seen as referring to his disputes with Ben Gvir.

“He tried to curry favor with me incessantly, but I didn’t agree. In my view, there was no chance for a fourth year. He is a failed commissioner, he didn’t bring any results. The organization doesn’t appreciate him and he has become an office joke,” Ben Gvir reportedly added.

A source close to Ben Gvir told the Ynet news site that Shabtai only made the remarks in the interview to aid him in the investigation of the Mount Meron disaster.

The April 2021 tragedy occurred as thousands of people celebrating the Lag B’Omer festival at the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai streamed through a narrow walkway. Some people fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal domino effect. The crush killed 45 and injured at least 150.

According to the unnamed official, the inquest into the tragedy will not be kind to the chief, and by speaking out against Ben Gvir, Shabtai is trying to appeal to unidentified officials who will be “happy that he attacked the minister.”

In August 2022, the panel gave Shabtai, among other top politicians and police officials responsible for the event, a warning.

“Officials who are liable to be negatively impacted by the inquiry’s work or findings… will have a chance to hear the claims against them and offer a reply, so that the panel’s investigation can reach the truth,” the panel wrote.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.