In the 75 years of Israel’s existence, the Jewish state has developed a strong, multi-faceted military establishment, complete with an army, navy and air force; a full-service domestic police system, including riot police and SWAT teams; and a comprehensive suite of military, security and political intelligence services. Does Israel also need a national guard to help keep internal order?
The answer is “yes,” according to the Netanyahu government, which voted last week to create a national guard. As part of the move, the Knesset directed that funding for the guard’s more than 1 billion-shekel budget be taken from 1.5% of the budgets of all of Israel’s other ministries. And if things play out the way proponents have suggested, the national guard will be placed under the direct command of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the firebrand hard-right leader who demanded the creation of the guard and explained that it would deal with “emergency scenarios, nationalistic crime, terror and strengthening sovereignty.”
The idea for a national guard force has been under consideration since 2021, when rioting broke out on the West Bank and in Israeli cities with mixed Arab-Jewish populations. But the plan was not pursued after the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell. Now back in office, Netanyahu has moved the plan forward to keep Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party from a threatened withdrawal from the 64-member governing coalition and toppling the government. Ben-Gvir sharply criticized Netanyahu for putting a pause on the government’s divisive judicial overhaul plan, and something needed to be done to keep Ben-Gvir happy.
Ben-Gvir seems to have played his hand well. He is now poised to be handed what critics call his own private militia, which could give him free rein to advance his right-wing agenda and hit hard at anti-government Jewish demonstrators, Israel’s Arab citizens and West Bank Palestinians, while providing backup to his fellow settlers.
Netanyahu knows that’s a potential problem. So, he inserted some conditions and further levels of review in the national guard process. As a result, Ben-Gvir won’t just be handed the new force — at least not yet. It could take months to recruit the guard’s planned 1,800 members. And even before that, a committee composed of all the Israeli security agencies will spend 90 days discussing what powers the new force will have and what its chain of command will be. The result could be a dilution of Ben-Gvir’s intended influence, or not. But, in the meantime, the prime minister quieted his most extreme minister and bought himself some time.
Netanyahu’s apparent payoff of Ben-Gvir is distasteful. And if things play out as Ben-Gvir demands, it is also dangerous. The national guard plan has generated opposition from both Israeli law enforcement officials and civilian critics, who warn against the formation of a unit that is independent of the police hierarchy and under political direction, which could “cause damage to personal safety, waste [of] resources and break Israel’s police from within.” These are serious concerns.
We trust that the inter-agency task force will examine these concerns and address them. Israel needs to keep politics out of its police force. ■
Your distaste for Ben-Gvir and your emphasis on personal politics should not be a primary factor in a discussion of the merits of establishing an Israeli national guard.
As you point out, Israel now has “a strong multi-faceted military establishment … ,” and so you ask, “does Israel also need a national guard to help keep internal order?”
Need I remind WJW that the U.S. also has a “strong multi-faceted military establishment,” including “a full-service domestic police system,” yet the United States has found it absolutely necessary to have a national guard, as an adjunct to other law enforcement authorities, in order to have an adequate workforce on hand to deal with national emergencies and human disasters, and to restore law and order when necessary. Decisions to call up the national guard are judiciously made by high ranking officials in political office, such as by the president of the U.S. or state governors.
I trust that the present political leaders of Israel, such as Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have the necessary competence and good sense to put similar limits on the power and authority of an Israeli National Guard.