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Netanyahu should drop his plan to create a private army for Israel’s Itamar Ben Givr

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
Israeli Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir gives a victory sign as he argues with Palestinians during a visit to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on May 10, 2021.

Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication to clarify the role of the new Israeli National Guard.

Under pressure from both his own civil society and the United States government, most notably President Biden himself, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed away from pressing for the immediate overhaul of Israel’s Supreme Court. He is doing so only for the time being, since he intends to revisit the matter after the parliament’s Passover recess.

Nevertheless, true to form, Netanyahu is still seeking to thread his political needle by attempting to assure that his right-wing coalition government avoids collapse even if he were to back away from the most noxious elements of the so-called “reform” of the country’s judiciary that extremists in his government insist must become law. To that end, and to assuage Itamar Ben Gvir, Netanyahu’s minister of national security and the most extreme member of his far-right Cabinet, he reportedly has promised to create a new National Guard that would operate under Ben Gvir’s control.

Like his fellow Cabinet member, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, Ben Gvir is a convicted criminal. Unlike Deri, who was convicted of white-collar crimes, Ben Gvir’s more than 50 indictments and three criminal charges brought against him, as well as his 2007 conviction, have resulted from violent behavior and incitement to racism. Moreover, over the years he consistently has sought to provoke both Israeli authorities and Palestinian Israelis, including participating in violent clashes with Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

It was in recognition of the reality that he could not form a government without Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, the third largest in the Israeli parliament, that Netanyahu created a national security ministry specifically for Ben Gvir. Although Netanyahu awarded Ben Gvir only general oversight of the Israeli border police on the West Bank, Ben Gvir sought to maintain operational control over police activities. The Supreme Court ruled against him, however, adding to his frustration with the court, which consistently has ruled against the construction of illegal settlements on the West Bank.

Accordingly, Ben Gvir is one of the strongest opponents of any compromise on the Supreme Court issue. It is for that reason, and to ensure that Ben Gvir remains in the government and not, as he has threatened, withdraw from the governing coalition and bring it crashing down, that Netanyahu has gone one step further and promised him a National Guard.

Ben Gvir has been vocal in seeking that the police take a much harsher stand against the thousands of demonstrators who have clogged Israel’s main roads for weeks to protest and forestall the government’s planned parliamentary votes on its Supreme Court legislation. It is likely that he intends that the newly created National Guard would do just that; indeed, that it would have the primary role in confronting the protesters.

There can be little doubt, therefore, that should an Israeli National Guard come into being, it will become nothing less than Ben Gvir’s private army. Unlike American National Guard units that operate under the control of state governors, or else are reassigned to the federal government, the role of Israel’s National Guard would not be to supplement active forces in wartime, nor to provide relief in the event of a natural disaster or some other statewide crisis. Israel has other units that perform these duties. Instead, Ben Gvir’s National Guard would more closely resemble Iraq’s special forces under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who employed them as his private Shi’a army against the country’s Sunni population. It was ironic enough that a man convicted of a crime should be placed in charge of a police force. It is beyond comprehension that Ben Gvir should have an army of his own.

President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior administration officials have made it clear to Netanyahu that his efforts to subvert his country’s Supreme Court are undermining the strong bonds that long have characterized American-Israeli relations. Netanyahu has rejected American protestations, however, arguing that the legislation is an internal matter. He effectively has told the United States to butt out.

It is time the Biden administration went beyond verbal protests to take serious action. Were Netanyahu to proceed with what can only be a bribe of sorts to Ben Gvir to remain in his governing coalition, it should serve as a trigger for a tough and material American response. To that end, Washington should make it clear that unless Netanyahu drops any plan to create a National Guard, the administration will suspend all financial support to Israel’s military which, given that money is fungible, could be diverted to Ben Gvir’s force. 

Only if the Biden administration were to threaten such a harsh measure might Netanyahu back away from his plan and, at long last, put his nation’s welfare over his fealty to his right-wing allies and his desire to avoid imprisonment at any cost. It is long past time that he did so.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israeli parliament Joe Biden Right-wing politics

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