The move came as part of agreement to stall the Israeli government’s contested judicial reform plan.
By Erin Viner
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir was reportedly the last hold-out amid struggle by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure coalition support for his decision to delay the judicial overhaul and instead pursue dialogue with opposition due to deep divisions in Israeli society over the issue.
The controversial, far-right politician reportedly threatened to resign if Netanyahu froze the bill until after the Knesset recess – a move that would have effectively have caused the government to fall.
According to a statement by Ben-Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir that the government will be given an extension to the next session to pass the reform through negotiations, and at the same time it was agreed between the two that as a step to increase governance, the establishment of a national guard under the National Security Ministry will be approved at the next Cabinet meeting, and the proposal will already be raised at the upcoming government meeting.”
The Knesset will be on recess from 2-30 April, with the following session is slated to end in late July.
Prior to the freeze, the coalition had last week stated that the first of three reform bills necessary to become law – that would have provided the government a majority in the Judicial Appointments Committee – would be approved prior to the Passover spring break.
The Israeli National Guard was founded as part of the last vital decision by then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett prior to leaving office in June 2022. The “trained and skilled force,” formed as a unit within the Border Police, would operate in several areas simultaneously and deal with disturbances and emergency scenarios” to “strengthen the public security of the State of Israel as well as the personal security of the citizens,” said an official government statement at the time. The initiative came in the wake of “severe disturbances” between Jewish and Arab citizens during the 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict with the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza, amid ongoing threats posed by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
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.
Opposition and other leaders were quick to condemn the latest Netanyahu-Ben-Gvir deal.
Appealing to the Israel Security Agency (ISA, Shin Bet) to oppose formation of a forming “Ben Gvir law-approved militia,” Labor Member of Knesset Gilad Kariv insisted that “the national guard must be under the police rather than under the control of Lehava and the rest of the Kahanists.”
Speaking to reporters at a Commanders for Israel’s Security conference, former Israel Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi asserted, “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.”
Police sources revealed earlier this month that in a letter to Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai, Ben-Gvir backed unusually harsh measures against protestors at what he deems to be “attempts at anarchy” during anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv, including stun grenades.
“It is important to understand – the “National Guard” that Netanyahu promised is a private armed militia that will answer directly to Ben-Gvir,” stressed the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, deeming 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.”
Saying, “we already saw what happened when Ben-Gvir wanted to suppress the protests, now one can only imagine what will happen when he has his own militias,” Israel’s oldest civil rights group underscored, “this is a police unit intended first and foremost to act in mixed cities, first and foremost against the Arab population. Such power in Ben-Gvir’s hands = certain violation of Arabs’ rights. Advancing such a proposal will also enable him to use these forces against the protests and demonstrators.”
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 granted him expanded control over the Israel Police as part of coalition negotiations to join the right-wing government that assumed office on 29 December, including influence over the setting of general policy.
In an 8 March letter to Netanyahu, 25 former police chiefs and commanders demanded he be fired to avert the potential outbreak of a third Palestinian intifada (Arabic for “uprising”) after he announced that illegally-built Palestinian homes would be demolished during generally volatile observance of Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Charging that Ben-Gvir’s actions are “contrary to the powers granted to him by law,” the letter accused him of “interference in the decision-making process during police operations and exploitation of events and the police for his political purposes.”
Other friction with police arose following the National Security Minister’s push for a broad anti-terror operation in Jerusalem. Sources cited by local media say Ben-Gvir’s demand for the expedition and increase of demolitions led to a clash with Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai, who reportedly informed the minister, “that’s not how decisions are made.”
Netanyahu was forced to step in to clarify Israeli policy after his minister infuriated Palestinians and incurred condemnation by Arab states by visiting the Temple Mount.
The area is considered by the Jewish People as the holiest site in the world, also revered to Christians. It is regarded as the third most sacred site in Islam, following Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Muslims, who built the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of the biblical temples refer to the contested land as Haram al Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. Symbolizing Palestinian statehood aspirations, it is the most sensitive site in their conflict with Israel.
Even though Israel regards the entirety of of Jerusalem as its eternal capital and the center of the Jewish faith, it has observed the so-called “Status Quo” arrangement that existed prior to its reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War, that bars Jewish prayer at the compound as not to ‘inflame Muslim anger.’ Religious worship on the al-Aqsa compound is restricted to Muslims, while Jews pray at the Western Wall nearby.
Following Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to the controversy by repeating his pledge to uphold the Status Quo agreement at the holy site.