Ex-Shin Bet Head Says Agency Should Provide Gantz Protection Due to Incitement

The police are also expected to recommend that investigations be launched against social media users who have been calling in recent days to attack Gantz

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Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz on Election Day.
Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz in Haifa on Election Day, Mar. 2, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Protection of Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz should be handled by the Shin Bet security service rather than the Knesset Guard, which is now responsible for his security, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin told Haaretz on Sunday.

Such a step is necessary, Diskin said, due to an increasingly extreme atmosphere since last Monday’s Knesset election. Currently neither the Shin Bet nor the government have plans to make such a change, however.

Policy regarding protection of senior Israeli officials is governed by a cabinet decision passed after the issue was studied by an official panel. At present, the Shin Bet is in charge of security for seven individuals who are considered symbols of government: the prime minister, the foreign and defense ministers, the Knesset speaker, the Knesset opposition leader and the Supreme Court president. The Shin Bet also provides guidance to the Knesset’s sergeant-at-arms and security officers at government ministries regarding protection for less senior government figures.

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The police are also expected to recommend that investigations be launched against social media users who have been calling in recent days to attack Gantz, subject to a legal opinion from the state prosecution. At the same time, Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit issued a statement Sunday evening in response to the online threats on Gantz.

The statement said that both of them “regard as very grave any post that includes threats or incitement to violence, and are committed to the cooperation between enforcement agencies to quickly, effectively and determinedly handle expressions that raise suspicions of the crimes of threats or incitement to violence.”

The statement added that “the enforcement policy with regard to offences that touch on freedom of expression is naturally a restrictive policy, and it’s clear that not every harsh or outrageous statement constitutes a criminal offense. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there will not be any tolerance of any expression that includes threats or incitement to violence or causing physical harm. In accordance with the law enforcement policy that applies to such serious instances, they will be examined and dealt with thoroughly and professionally."

Police have identified in recent days a rise in violent discourse on social media, following the election results and reports that Gantz might try to form a minority government. However, senior law enforcement officials said that the comments against Gantz aren’t unusual, and a similar rise in violent online comments occurred after the last two elections. “At this stage this isn’t a trend we haven’t seen before,” said a senior prosecutor.

Other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz is probably the public figure with the highest profile in Israel, following the results of last week’s election, which would leave Netanyahu short of a Knesset majority if he only receives the support of his current coalition partners. But the wording of the cabinet resolution on protection of senior figures does not allow Gantz to receive Shin Bet protection at the moment because he is not prime minister and not formally the leader of the opposition.

Former Shin Bet security agency director Yuval Diskin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Under such circumstances, it is the Knesset sergeant-at-arms, Yosef Griff, who is responsible for the Kahol Lavan leader’s security. On Sunday morning, Griff announced that in light of the extent of threats against Gantz, his security detail has been beefed up.

But the Shin Bet security unit has more bodyguards and a higher level of expertise at its disposal than the Knesset Guard (although the Knesset’s security guards are highly regarded and some of them are former Shin Bet security staff). The Shin Bet is also closer to real-time intelligence on the risks that an official figure may face.

As far as is known, the Shin Bet has not yet developed a new recommendation regarding Gantz’s security detail. But in conversations with Haaretz, a number of former senior officials from the security establishment or who specialized in personal protection expressed agreement that the time has come for a reassessment, citing events of the past several days.

“Sometimes what you need to resort to is the rule of common sense,” Diskin told Haaretz. “Even if Gantz is not the leader of the opposition, he is now head of the party with the greatest chance of forming a government. The Shin Bet can’t ignore the public atmosphere. In my opinion, it should take a clear professional stand, warn the political leadership of the possible implications and recommend transferring direct responsibility to it for Gantz’s security,” he added.

“The decision should err on the side of caution. There is the potential here of reverting to the days of the mid-90s,” Diskin said, referring to the atmosphere of incitement before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “Social media is amplifying the effect of the incitement,” he added.

Among other things, there have been posts of Gantz in a Palestinian keffiyeh with the caption “Traitor,” but according to sources in law enforcement it is doubtful posts and expressions like these that reach the level of being considered a criminal offense, as opposed to calls for physical violence.

The police have received complaints of recent posts that included physical threats against Gantz. One of them said, “There’s a funeral for Gantz this evening, we have to urgently burn all the leftists coming for a civil war, particularly Gantz the Satan, Gantz should not see the light of day.” Another one read, “Gantz must be murdered.” The complaints were sent to the police investigations and intelligence branch, where the recommendations to the prosecution are written.

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