Facing pressure from the attorney general, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana announced Tuesday that he has nominated Border Police chief Yaakov (Kobi) Shabtai to serve as the next Israel Police commissioner, ending a two-year impasse.
In addition, Ohana said the current head of the Israel Prisons Service’s southern district, Katy Perry, will serve as the next chief of the IPS. She will be the second woman to lead the organization.
Both Shabtai and Perry’s appointments are subject to the approval of the government’s senior appointments committee as well as the cabinet.
Following the announcement, interim police chief Motti Cohen announced that he would be resigning from his post within days. In a letter to the force on the decision, Cohen lamented the political calculations that led to the delay in the appointment of a permanent police chief for two years. He also claimed that unnamed forces were intervening in the police’s work.
Shabtai, 56, had not been seen as a frontrunner in recent weeks with many analysts speculating that Ohana would tap Jerusalem District commander Doron Yadid or one of Yadid’s predecessors, Yoram Halevi. Before taking on the role of Border Police chief, Shabtai served in the Yamam police counter-terrorism unit in addition to commanding an undercover combat force in the Gaza Strip. He had not served as district commissioner, a typical prerequisite for police chief candidates.
He has been recognized several times by his superiors for risking his life in the field to save fellow officers and civilians.
Shabtai made headlines last month when he ordered a halt to Border Police training so that officers watch a recent Channel 13 expose on officers’ misbehavior as a warning for how not to act on the job. The cops were filmed abusing and humiliating Palestinians who had illegally crossed into Israel from the West Bank.
“The occurrence of these incidents requires us, the commanders, to stop and conduct an internal inspection, to first look at ourselves and the current climate and spirit in our units,” he wrote to Border Police personnel at the time.
The Prisons Service has been without a permanent chief since 2018, when Ofrah Klinger ended her tenure, and has since been led by an acting head, Asher Vaknin.
Perry, 56, last year became the first-ever female district commander in the organization.
In announcing his decision, Ohana said that both positions he was filling require leaders with “in-depth knowledge of the organization and experience in various roles” as well as the ability to both uphold the organizations’ values and “refresh” them.
Hours after the announcement, Cohen sent a letter to his subordinates declaring his decision to retire from the force.
“It seems that the decision not to appoint a permanent commissioner for such a long time was not without ulterior considerations,” he wrote in an apparent swipe at the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Along with the familiar challenges of the job, recently I also had to deal with new challenges — attempts to intervene in the work of the Israel Police. This intervention has no place in the organization and I did not lend it a hand,” Cohen wrote, without going into specifics.
The announcement from the public security minister came less than a week after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered Ohana to name a candidate for permanent police commissioner by the end of the month.
Mandelblit’s instruction followed an injunction from the High Court of Justice ordering the government to fill the position, without providing a deadline.
The Israel Police has been without a permanent commissioner since December 2018, when Roni Alsheich’s term ended. Around the same time, new elections were called, leading to an extended period of instability that saw three elections over the course of a year. As the government during this time was a caretaker-transitional one, it could not appoint a police chief.
Israel has had a permanent coalition since May.
Alsheich was a key figure in Netanyahu’s criminal probes and is one of the figures the premier and his Likud colleagues have claimed without evidence were involved in an attempted coup against Netanyahu. Motti Cohen has been acting police chief since Alsheich’s departure and has had his tenure extended several times.
Mandelblit has previously said that Netanyahu could not be involved in the appointment of top law enforcement officials due to a conflict of interest, as he is facing criminal charges.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have pushed back against the attorney general’s instructions, and the High Court earlier this month instructed Netanyahu to explain within 30 days why he claims he is not constrained by Mandelblit’s conflict of interest arrangement.
In their coalition agreement signed earlier this year, the Likud and Blue and White parties agreed to put off any senior nominations over which they were likely to clash. Netanyahu is believed to seek an appointment that will be more convenient to him as he faces his ongoing legal troubles, while Blue and White is believed to seek an appointee seen as independent, and not one attempting to curry favor with the premier.
The position of state attorney has been similarly vacant since Shai Nitzan’s term ended in December 2019, with Likud blocking Blue and White from moving forward with an appointment. Mandelblit is currently acting state attorney.
At the start of October, Defense Minister and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said it was time to end the “chaos” in the government and fill senior law enforcement posts that have long been held by temporary appointees.
Responding to Mandelblit’s letter to the High Court last week, Gantz called for “the appointment of a commissioner, a state attorney, and for the completion of all appointments as soon as possible.”
“It is impossible to keep a country on hold,” he wrote on Twitter, in an apparent reference to Netanyahu.
This month’s court order came a day after a proposal to dissolve the Knesset was passed in a preliminary vote, heralding the likely end of the power-sharing coalition Gantz established with Netanyahu some six months ago. The Knesset’s preliminary approval of the bill set the stage for new elections, though it must still pass more committee and plenary votes.