After a week of hesitation, Sgt. (res.) Elor Azaria finally did the right thing for himself. On Thursday, the soldier who shot a Palestinian assailant who was already lying on the ground wounded scrapped the idea of trying to appeal his manslaughter conviction to the Supreme Court and instead asked Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to reduce his 18-month sentence. Nevertheless, as at every juncture in this saga, Azaria, his parents and his lawyers insisted on doing it their way. Though the army made it clear earlier this week that to be considered seriously, his commutation request must express regret, the request lacked any such sentiment.
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In Sunday’s verdict, the Military Court of Appeals said soldiers must act in accordance with the army’s ethical code, “The Spirit of the IDF.” Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy and Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, helped write that document in the 1990s. He is moderately encouraged by the army’s handling of Azaria’s case.
“To jurists, the gap between the serious crime and the lenient sentence – 18 months – seems strange,” he told Haaretz. “I’m less bothered by the sentence. Two courts sent the right message: This isn’t our way.”
Granted, he continued, there have been similar cases in the past, including the Bus 300 affair of 1984, in which the Shin Bet security service killed two captured hijackers. “But I don’t think public opinion was different in the 1970s or 1980s from what it is today. Then, too, 80 percent of the public apparently thought a terrorist assailant shouldn’t leave the incident alive.
“It’s not public opinion that has changed, but the political system. Here something happened that never happened before. A significant portion of the political echelons lined up behind someone who violated the IDF’s basic values. What changed is the use of public sentiment for political capital, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Naftali Bennett,” respectively the prime minister and education minister. “These voices have become the voices of the mainstream political leadership.
“There’s a direct connection between this behavior and something bigger – the systematic assault on key institutions, from the courts through the media to the top ranks of the IDF and Shin Bet. There’s a political group that wants to tell its voters these institutions aren’t letting it govern. It thereby gains thrice.
First, this excuses its failures. Second, it preserves support for the government among people who still have an opposition worldview. Third, it’s an answer for Netanyahu’s sense of being besieged: He feels the elites, including the military one, are hemming him in and working against him.
“But these easy gains are like playing with fire. Over time, the damage accumulates. Netanyahu barely restrains statements against these institutions by people around him. The problem is that the heads of the defense establishment are liable to be afraid to voice their views even in internal discussions. Officers will start keeping silent, restraining themselves, so as not to be hurt. These methods are liable to exact a significant price. This is deeply harmful to professionalism. And we need serious professionals.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the same week, politicians attacked both the Shin Bet and the chief of staff. One of the IDF’s advantages is being a professional body that doesn’t keep one eye on public opinion and isn’t interested in immediate political advantage. The security cabinet has already stopped being professional. Everything leaks there. It’s become a reality show. The prime minister needs officers’ judicious voices. They aren’t his rivals.”
Eisenkot, like some of his predecessors, sometimes consults Halbertal on ethical issues. Asked about Eisenkot’s behavior in the Azaria case, Halbertal is unequivocal.
“We’re lucky Gadi Eisenkot is chief of staff today. Because of his biography, Eisenkot doesn’t owe anyone anything. He’s the most independent person among the brass, with tremendous integrity and judgment. An exceptional professional ... with a very solid moral universe. I don’t know how things will look after he finishes his term.”