Analysis

Hebron Shooter's Best Shot at a Shorter Sentence: Clemency From the Israeli Army Chief

Gadi Eisenkot would weigh cutting prison time if Elor Azaria expresses regret and waives further appeals

FILE PHOTO: Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot
Tomer Appelbaum

One day after a military appeals court rejected Elor Azaria’s appeal of his manslaughter conviction, his family continued conducting a dialogue of the deaf with high-ranking army officers.

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot made it clear he would consider reducing the Hebron shooter’s 18-month prison sentence, but only if he waives further appeals, begins serving out his time and applies for clemency — and only if, for the first time, he expresses regret for his actions. But his family is demanding the opposite process: First, the army should make an offer specifying by how much Azaria’s sentence will be reduced, and then the family will evaluate the proposal.

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Moreover, as if to ratchet up the tension, defense attorney Yoram Sheftel hurled personal insults at Eisenkot on Monday.

With his conviction and sentence having been upheld on Sunday, Azaria has three options. He could ask the Supreme Court to hear a second appeal, a request jurists say would probably be refused. He could request clemency from Eisenkot. Finally, he could ask President Reuven Rivlin for a pardon. Since Rivlin and Eisenkot have presumably coordinated their positions in advance, the most effective option seems to be appealing to Eisenkot.

Former Israeli soldier Elor Azaria (C), who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for killing a wounded and incapacitated Palestinian assailant, waits to hear the ruling at an Israeli military appeals court in Tel Aviv, Israel July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Pool
POOL/REUTERS

But for Azaria and his parents, this would require swallowing several bitter pills. First, Azaria would have to report to military prison on August 9 to begin serving his sentence, and then wait a month or two for Eisenkot to make a decision. Second, he would have to express regret for shooting and killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, after the a Palestinian assailant was already wounded and incapacitated. Third, his family would have to abandon the delusion, cultivated by Sheftel, journalists, public relations experts and supporters, that they and they alone can dictate what happens.

Interviewed by Army Radio on Monday morning, Azaria’s father, Charlie Azaria, evaded the question of whether his son would express regret and reiterated his expectation that the army offer a deal.

“The final decision will be Elor’s and ours,” he said. “If we get an immediate offer for reducing the sentence, we might respond either way, depending on our lawyer’s recommendation.”

Sheftel, in an interview with Israel Channel 10 television on Monday, described Eisenkot as “fat, without a soldierly appearance,” and then, in a different interview, as a “fat bureaucrat in a municipal sewage department.”

Sheftel’s gutter language isn’t new. Even before the Azaria case, he was a sought-after radio and television interviewee, and he was popular among the growing right-wing fringes for his aggressive attacks on senior army officers and the Shin Bet security service.

Elor Azaria's defense attorney Yoram Sheftel outside the military court in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

These are attacks in which many people, including Knesset members and sometimes even cabinet ministers, take part. Stations that gladly host Sheftel and journalists who regularly sit alongside him on panels also participate, actively or tacitly, in normalizing such language.

In this case, Sheftel seems to have achieved the opposite of what’s good for his client, and not for the first time. After his verbal onslaught, sources in the army announced that there would be no negotiations with Sheftel or the Azaria family, and that to start the clemency process, Azaria would have to take the first steps — waive further appeals, enter prison and submit a request to Eisenkot.

Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the army will really stand by its word and refrain from all negotiations.

Meanwhile, the intensive political meddling continues. Over the last two days, members of the Habayit Hayehudi party have actively pressured senior army officers to quickly cut a deal with Azaria, one that meets the family’s expectations. These efforts have been accompanied by a flood of press statements by cabinet ministers and Knesset members, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, urging Rivlin to pardon Azaria and thereby bring the affair to a close.

So far, Eisenkot is standing in the breach. But these latest developments once again show why the Azaria case is the greatest challenge he has faced as chief of staff.

The left’s argument that Eisenkot mustn’t reduce Azaria’s sentence by even a smidgen completely ignores the public’s attitude toward the trial. If the army wants to retain its legitimacy among enlisted combat soldiers and their parents, it can’t stick to the letter of the law and ignore Azaria’s situation.

In any case, Eisenkot’s most important message about the case was his reiteration of the rules of engagement and of the prohibition on killing a terrorist once he’s no longer a threat. Making Azaria serve his full sentence is less critical to Eisenkot and other senior officers.

Given the plethora of rightist politicians who have sought to appeal to populist sentiment by embracing Azaria, the unusual silence of one man — former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon — is noteworthy. Ya’alon was the only senior minister to back Eisenkot when the case began, and his fight with Netanyahu over the latter’s attitude toward Azaria in April 2016 accelerated his departure from the government two months later. It was a bill of divorce from the right by someone previously seen as its flesh and blood.

The appellate judges lent no credence to accusations that Ya’alon blatantly intervened in the judicial process when the case began. With hindsight, it seems he took an admirable moral stance and paid a heavy price for it. And since leaving the government and the ruling Likud party, his political position has only weakened.