The decision by the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to use the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the IDF to help rein in Israeli-Arab sector violence is nothing short of an earthquake that could reshape the country’s social fabric in unpredictable ways that are hard to imagine.
After this example of injecting the agency into domestic issues, along with using its counter-terror tools to track the coronavirus wave, will the intelligence unit next be foisted into other crises and start dealing with citizens’ finances and start infringing on other personal liberties?
Part of the controversy is that the Israeli-Arab sector itself is bitterly split on this issue.
On the one hand, there is Jamal Hachrush, the top Police official for handling Israel-Arab affairs who openly pushed for bringing the Shin Bet into the picture in an interview with Yediot Ahronot this past weekend.
Similarly, Minister for Regional Cooperation and Israeli-Arab Meretz member Esawi Frej called on the Shin Bet to get involved in a separate interview with Yediot this past weekend.
In contrast, the Joint List and Adalah, the leading Israeli-Arab human rights NGO, are condemning the government’s decision as a cynical conspiracy to militarize and oppress Israeli-Arab villages.
Curiously, Ra’am’s Knesset contingent has been deafeningly silent about the decision.
This is a recipe for disaster because the second anything goes wrong (even if some of the process goes right), the Joint List will claim its conspiracy is proven and Ra’am will likely switch from silence to condemnation.
And critics of the move are not only in the Israeli-Arab sector.
Just last week, former attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein told The Jerusalem Post that he opposed involving the Shin Bet in domestic issues since it would be a slippery slope with unpredictable consequences.
Instead, he recommended a mix of significantly improved education and increased police presence and enforcement for the Arab sector as part of a mix of short and long-term strategies.
PART OF what is interesting about Weinstein is that he is not even part of the liberal camp of the legal establishment.
Weinstein was and is generally ready to endorse most security moves the government makes regardless of sometimes universal criticism by the world human rights community and many Western Israeli allies.
He is a hard-nosed and down-to-earth old school lawyer who is quite comfortable standing by the security establishment.
His opposition therefore signifies that a majority of the legal establishment, even beyond the liberal camp, opposed using the Shin Bet for the current Israeli-Arab violence crisis, arguing that it is still a domestic issue and not terrorism.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, as a former IDF Military Advocate General, in supporting the government decision, probably represents the far end of the legal spectrum of supporting controversial security policies when it comes to balancing such issues with human rights.
And it is not just the lawyers and the Israeli-Arabs.
The Shin Bet itself is skittish about getting involved.
Nearly all former Shin Bet officials who the Post reached out to refused to comment, though in a fashion that their silence itself is a show of disapproval or at least heavy concern.
Most of the Shin Bet, including soon to be outgoing Director Nadav Argaman, heavily opposed involving the agency in combating the coronavirus wave.
But the Netanyahu government forced it to do so over its loud and public objections.
The agency was not only concerned about using its powerful counter-terror tools on citizens, but also about its sources and methods being exposed, since anything it does beyond counter-terrorism is potentially more exposed to the public.
For example, the public learned that the Shin Bet’s cell phone tracking tool often has trouble with certain three dimensional issues, such as discerning between the different floors of a building.
This was exposed when the Shin Bet wrongly thought certain citizens had come into corona contact with each other, not realizing they were on different floors, though technically within two meters of each other.
The police are also split.
HACHRUSH WOULD not have been permitted to make his views explicit if Police Chief Kobi Shabtai did not support them or was not ready to give them a try.
But former head of the police operations command Yaakov “Kobi” Cohen told the Post last week that “it would be rushing in too soon. Look at how the Shin Bet handled the escaping terrorists [from Gilboa Prison]. They are for a surprise solution to an extreme situation. Their tools are for combating terror. I don’t think we are in a place yet where we need to use the Shin Bet.
“The Police have the capacity to handle things,” he said, adding that someone is suggesting that the agency is “searching for an easy and fast solution for this period, but long-term this needs meticulous and well-planned work, operations and follow through, as well as a greater presence and both more undercover and public actions. I do not think we have reached the emergency point where we need the Shin Bet.”
Another interesting point is that Mandelblit told the government that the security agency could be involved without any legislative changes.
This is surprising since the Shin Bet’s powers are generally limited to counter-terrorism.
Some have argued recently that the Shin Bet may have more of a basis to intervene after the May 10-21 war with Gaza when various Israeli-Arab criminal organizations crossed over into nationalist actions supporting Hamas.
In addition to authentic concerns from the Arab sector of mistreatment by the state, these groups helped cause widespread chaos, which some view as a more strategic threat than mere criminal activities.
But this is a controversial interpretation.
Without a social consensus on the issue, the second that the Shin Bet mistakenly kills an innocent Israeli-Arab or is accused of torturing or illegally hacking an innocent Israeli-Arab’s cell phone, all of this could blow up in Bennett’s face.
It could also damage the agency’s future ability and support for its real job of combating terrorism.
Some of this should not be a surprise.
Though Bennett slammed Netanyahu on some issues, he was lockstep supporting the former prime minister’s injecting the agency into handling the coronavirus.
Also, despite the risks, the Shin Bet is tremendously talented and powerful and may be able to gain control of the wave of violence in areas where the police have failed.
The question is: Even if the agency succeeds, will we recognize our new and evolved society afterwards – and what will be the long-term price to Israeli democracy?