By Erin Viner
Following a heated debate during the weekly meeting, the Cabinet approved the establishment of the Israel National Guard as part of the National Security Ministry. For now, however, the Cabinet refrained from granting Ben-Gvir direct command after political rivals expressed concern the force could become a sectarian “militia.”
“The responsibilities of – and control over – the National Guard will be discussed by a professional committee composed of all security agencies in the State of Israel, the National Security Council and the relevant government ministries,” said a government statement. Recommendations by the committee, which will be submitted to the Cabinet within 90 days, will include determination whether the force would be “subordinate to the Israel Police Inspector General or to another body, and will receive input from the Inspector General and all professional elements, “ added the statement.
Local media reported that several ministers balked over a proposed 1.5% reallocation from the budgets of all other ministries to provide NIS 1 billion ($278 million or ) to the National Security Ministry for the funding of the Guard. The motion was nevertheless passed even though some ministers called the move irresponsible and likely to be condemned by the public.
Reports said Ben Gvir was infuriated after his demand for immediate transfer of the funds led to allegations by Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel that he “wants everything here and now at the expense of other ministries,” causing Netanyahu to step in to calm the argument.
The National Guard will deal with national emergency situations such “severe disturbances” between Jewish and Arab citizens during the 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict in 2021 with the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza, amid ongoing threats posed by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
The previous government began setting up an auxiliary police force of a few hundred servicemembers to tackle pro-Palestinian riots in mixed Jewish-Arab areas under the authority of the Israel Police, the coalition was ousted before the new division was finalized.
Israel’s Arab population constitutes 21% of the overall population.
Ben-Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party rose in popularity partly due to the 2021 unrest. He joined Israel’s right-wing 37th government with an expanded law-and-order portfolio that he pledged would include a beefed-up National Guard to combat mainly ‘nationalist crime’ to restore ‘governance where needed.’
“It will deal with this exclusively. The police do not deal exclusively with this. It’s busy with a thousand and one things,” he told Army Radio. The National Guard will take months to get off the ground, he added, with an initial intake of 1,850 servicemembers who could include reservist police officers and volunteers from both the Arab and Jewish sectors.
Netanyahu agreed to jump-start Ben-Gvir’s initiative when the National Security Minister reportedly threatened to quit after the Premier agreed to pause the disputed judicial overhaul proposal that has triggered ongoing mass nationwide street protests. Talks are currently being mediated by President Isaac Herzog in attempts to reach a compromise with opposition leaders over the proposed revisions.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara warned that the cabinet decision was made without first establishing the parameters of the National Guard.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid slammed the Cabinet for agreement to “finance a private army of thugs for the TikTok clown,” referring to Ben-Gvir’s volubility on social media. The government “has existed for three months and the only thing that interests it is trampling democracy and advancing the delusional fantasies of delusional people,” said the Yesh Atid Chairman, while blasting the coalition’s priorities as “ridiculous and despicable.”
“Why does the State of Israel – which has an army, police, military intelligence, the Shin Bet, Mossad, National Security Council, Prisons Service, riot police, a SWAT team – need another national guard?” tweeted Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh.
Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai has expressed deep misgivings that if the National Guard is not under his own force’s control, it could have “disastrous consequences” that could amount to harm to citizens’ personal security.” He also called the move “nothing but a waste of resources, doubling the number of headquarters, and gambling on a model that hasn’t been proven and has no benefit.”
Ben Gvir’s office issued a statement rejected the Police Commissioner’s concerns as the result of what it described as a “war of egos.”
Speaking to reporters at a Commanders for Israel’s Security conference last week, former Israel Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi alleged, “Ben-Gvir formed a private militia for his political purposes. He is dismantling Israeli democracy, summoning whoever does not bend to his will, and endangering Israel’s security.”
Israel National Security Agency (ISA, Shin Bet) Director Ronen Bar has also voiced opposition to the formation of the National Guard, said unnamed security officials cited by the Haaretz news site, while Channel 12 reported that police view it as a “catastrophe.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel declared “It is important to understand – the “National Guard” that Netanyahu promised is a private armed militia that will answer directly to Ben-Gvir,” calling the decision “a new and dangerous addition to the coup d’etat that we are witnessing. As if it is not enough to act against the judicial system, now we see operative steps to take authorities from the police and turn them into Ben-Gvir’s Revolutionary Guards.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told CNN that the move is a “lunatic step” due to Ben Gvir’s lengthy criminal record.
Ben-Gvir’s appointment as National Security Minister was met with outcry from the start due to a lengthy police record – which he said in 2015 racked up to 53 indictments on criminal charges – including a 2007 conviction for racist incitement.
He was a youth coordinator of the far-right Kach party, considered by Israel and the United States to be a terrorist organization. The Israel Bar Association denied his taking of the bar exam until the settlement of several outstanding cases.
As an attorney, he gained notoriety for defending extremist Jewish activists accused of terrorism and hate crimes; also representing the far-right Lehava group opposed to Jewish intermarriage. He was even exempted from performing compulsory service in the IDF over his extremist activities that once included calls for the expulsion of all Palestinians.