The Critical Questions for the New Shin Bet Chief

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Ronen Bar, the new head of the Shin Bet

“Worthy,” “brave” and “a warrior” were among the accolades in profiles of the new head of the Shin Bet security service, Ronen Bar. Such traits are presumably de rigueur for these positions, but they’re not enough. The public deserves to know the professional and moral positions of the people who lead the country’s most powerful organizations, and the Shin Bet is obviously one of them.

The Shin Bet’s involvement in quarantine tracking taught Israelis about the agency’s power to spy on innocent individuals, and also about the limitations of this “instrument.” The Shin Bet is a domestic security service and its work is essential, but its power over people’s lives, both inside Israel and in the territories, cannot be overstated. Its actions and recommendations affect human life, individual liberties and even family life.

History teaches us that inappropriate or unrestrained use of such tools, over which there’s little oversight to begin with, can be a genuine threat to democracy and human rights. Given this, how did it happen that in a state where there is lively public debate over almost everything, the Shin Bet remained out of the spotlight?

One can think of many questions for Bar. For instance, what is his position on the cabinet’s decision to use his agency for coronavirus contact tracing? Does he think gathering such information accords with democratic values? What steps does he intend to take to prevent illegitimate use of this “tool” for mass surveillance? How much restraint will he display, if any, in the face of the inevitable pressure on him to use tools meant for thwarting terrorism for civilian purposes? Would he agree to judicial oversight of searches of communications databases?

Bar should also be asked where he stands on pressure to use the Shin Bet to fight crime in Israel’s Arab communities. This is a question of current relevance, but it’s also an ethical question about a step that, according to a recent ruling by the attorney general, would be illegal. How sensitive is he to individual rights? What is his position on a draft law that would allow the widespread use of facial recognition cameras in public areas?

What is the Shin Bet director’s position on transparency? For example, isn’t it time for sessions of the Knesset Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services, which supervises his agency, to be opened to the public? The old adage “sunlight is the best disinfectant” is also true for abuses of power and human rights violations. It’s essential to know whether Bar will lead the Shin Bet into an era of transparency or leave it in the shadows.

What is Bar’s view on the use of so-called administrative detention against both Palestinians and Israelis? The public deserves to know his position on depriving people of their freedom without trial. We also deserve to know his position on a proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law that seeks, once again, to deny Palestinian spouses of Israelis any possibility of obtaining permanent residency or citizenship in Israel. This proposal aims to revive a racist law that the High Court of Justice upheld by a single vote, a law born during the terror attacks of the second intifada. Would Bar support continuing this discrimination, especially given the fact that politicians now admit that the law’s real purpose is demographic and the security argument, based on an opinion issued by the Shin Bet, was merely a cover?

Freedom of expression is a key feature of a free and democratic society. So we should ask if Bar will continue his predecessors’ tradition of summoning social activists for “warning talks.” His answer could shed light on his professional perspective on the hazy topic of “subversion” and the importance he attaches to freedom of expression and of protest on controversial issues like the occupation.

The Shin Bet is too important not to talk about. Understanding the worldview of its leader is much more critical than all the superlatives attached to his name.

Gil Gan-Mor, an attorney, heads the civil and social rights unit at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

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