How Israeli Politicians Flipped and Flopped Over the Hebron Shooter's Trial

From declarations of loyalty to the army and judicial system to demonstrations of sympathy and support for the now-convicted soldier and his family, Israeli politicians exhibited signs of schizophrenia these past nine months.

Netanyahu, Lieberman, Lapid and Yacimovich
Dan Balilty / AP; Olivier Fitoussi; Ofer Vaknin

In their responses to the Elor Azaria affair, Israeli politicians have exhibited signs of schizophrenia, flip-flopping over the past nine months between declarations of loyalty to the army and judicial system to demonstrations of sympathy and support for the now-convicted soldier and his family.

Some, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, changed their tune after figuring out which way the wind was blowing: In other words, when they realized many of their constituents believed the 19-year-old soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinians attacker in Hebron last March had acted appropriately.

For Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it was a matter of landing a new job that required more statesmanlike behavior. The change of heart exhibited by Yair Lapid, the chairman of the opposition Yesh Atid party, might be explained by the realization that someone with designs on the prime minister’s office needs to show greater respect for the law. As for the about-face of Labor party veteran Shelly Yacimovich,to give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was just a case of downright regret for rushing to judgment.

Here’s what they said then and what they’re saying now:

Benjamin Netanyahu.
Dan Balilty / AP

Benjamin Netanyahu

Like his former defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, the prime minister, in his immediate reaction to the Hebron shooting, took the high road, condemning what clearly seemed to be a violation of the army’s ethical code. “What happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces," Netanyahu said back in March, adding that the IDF "expects its soldiers to act coolly and in accordance with the rules of engagement." But barely a week later, in an unusual gesture, he picked up the phone to call Azaria’s parents to express his sympathy. "As a father of a soldier I understand your distress," Netanyahu reportedly told the soldier’s father.

The prime minister justified reaching out to Azaria’s family on the grounds that they were no different from other bereaved parents. "I speak to many parents in distress whose sons were killed or are missing and here citizens of Israel are very distressed,” he said.  Netanyahu was eventually forced to apologize for the comparison, considered offensive by many.

In a profile of Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s 25-year-old son, Haaretz reporter Shuki Sadeh explained what might have caused the about-face on Azaria. According to Sadeh’s report, after spending a weekend with his son, Netanyahu was persuaded that he needed to show more sympathy for the soldier. “Yair Netanyahu told his father it had been a mistake to issue the condemnation,” Sadeh wrote. “Yair based his assessment on what he was seeing on social media, where tens of thousands of users were expressing support for Azaria, saying they thought politicians should support the soldier – just like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who earned rave reviews online.” It was a few days later that Netanyahu put in a call to Azaria’s family.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, November 21, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

On Wednesday, Netanyahu wrote on Facebook: "I support a pardon for Elor Azaria."

Avigdor Lieberman

The day Azaria shot the wounded Palestinian attacker, the Yisrael Beiteinu party chairman was still sitting in opposition. Lieberman was one of the first Israeli politicians to speak out publicly in support of the killer. “A soldier that kills a terrorist obviously should not be charged with murder and also does not need to be charged with manslaughter,” he said back then.  He went so far as to attend a court session to show solidarity with the family, after which he accused the military prosecutor, in a Facebook post, of presenting “a distorted version of events in which the soldier from Hebron is guilty of manslaughter.”

But then in June, Yaalon was ousted from the Defense Ministry, and Lieberman was brought in to replace him. With the entire army, including its commanders, suddenly his responsibility, Lieberman began measuring his words somewhat more carefully when addressing the Azaria affair. Although he continued to say he would support Azaria, no matter what the outcome of the trial, speaking at a conference in September, a few months after he took office, Lieberman urged the military tribunal  “to ignore the noise and judge according to the facts, without pressure from the left or right."

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
Ofer Vaknin

Responding to today’s verdict, Lieberman referred to Azaria as “one of the best fighters” and “salt of the earth.” But the man who had justified the soldier’s actions nine months earlier was careful not to utter a word against the verdict. “I ask that we all respect the court's ruling and show restraint,” he said. “What is important – despite the harsh verdict – is that the defense establishment help the family and this soldier. I call on the public not to lambast the IDF and the defense establishment. We must respect the ruling."

Lieberman termed calls for Azaria's pardoning "ignorance and slogans."

Yair Lapid

Like Lieberman, Yair Lapid, chairman of the opposition Yesh Atid party, appeared humbled by the military court verdict. In his initial reactions to the Hebron shooting, Lapid did not mince words, making it clear that he stood firmly on the side of Azaria.  

MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) during a Knesset Education Committee meeting, December 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

“The instructions have to be very clear, if someone pulls out a knife or a screwdriver, you shoot to kill,” he said back in March. “Our sages said, ‘If someone tries to kill you, kill him first,’ and that has to be the work model.”

But responding to the court’s verdict today, Lapid – whose party is enjoying a spike in popularity, according to the latest polls – clearly situated himself on the other side of the controversy. “I call on everyone to end the violence and stop the irresponsible statements coming from within the political system,” he said. “It’s not the way of the Jewish people, of the State of Israel or of the IDF. The court has made its decision and now we also have a role; to prevent a rift in our society and to ensure no harm comes to the people’s army. The State of Israel is powerful because of our wonderful military, our officers and our soldiers and because we are a country of law and order.”

Shelly Yacimovich

Like many on the center-left, the former Labor party leader, who hasn’t yet decided whether to throw her hat in again, initially distanced herself from Azaria. Contrary to claims made by his supporters, she wrote several months ago on her Facebook page, he is not the “child of all of us.”

“I’m sure my children would not do such a thing,” she said in no uncertain terms.

Last April, when a demonstration was organized in support of Azaria at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Yacimovich expressed revulsion. “It is a rally against the IDF and its chief of staff,” she was quoted saying in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “The extreme right wing that does not recognize the state’s institutions is using it as an excuse for a political campaign. It is a rally showing support for an act that has no heroism and is completely foreign to the values of the IDF.”

Yet, Yacimovich was among the first Israeli politicians, who in response to the military tribunal’s verdict today, said a pardon for Azaria should be considered.  “The shoulders of Sargent Elor Azaria are too narrow to bear the heavy burden and pain of the growing rift in Israeli society,” she explained her change of heart in a Facebook post.

The judges, she noted, were obliged to ignore events outside. “But I feel a reverse obligation,” she wrote. “To be attentive to the broader ramifications and to say what I feel in my heart. Even if this is not in line with the positions of those with whom I usually agree.”