After journalist Ilana Dayan broadcast a report on her television program “Uvda” about the goings-on in the Prime Minister’s Office, Benjamin Netanyahu issued a violent, virulent response that ran to seven pages and thousands of words. But Wednesday night, the prime minister made do with just 54 words in response to the most significant event to occur in Israel over the past year – the conviction of soldier Elor Azaria, who, for the sake of vengeance, killed a terrorist in Hebron after he had already been overpowered.
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More than five hours passed between Azaria’s conviction and Netanyahu’s statement, which was issued just a few moments before the main television news broadcasts began. The statement was one more step down the path of abandoning even the most minimal elements of statesmanlike behavior that Netanyahu has been walking ever since the Azaria case began. It was a direct continuation of his flip-flop when the case first broke, of his delusional phone call to Azaria’s father and of his outrageous remarks to Udi Segal of Chanel 2 television a few months ago, in which he compared the parents of the soldier suspected of manslaughter to the parents of Israeli soldiers who fell in battle.
Netanyahu’s statement was a model of Orwellian doublespeak. A visitor from another planet who landed in Israel at 8 P.M. on Wednesday and read this statement would have thought the soldier who opened fire was actually the victim of the whole affair, and especially of the trial. A genuine tortured martyr. In this statement, Netanyahu identified himself completely with the criminal and his supporters and, for dessert, urged that the gun-wielding soldier be pardoned before he had even been sentenced.
A few hours before Netanyahu issued his statement, dozens of Azaria’s supporters had demonstrated opposite Israel Defense Forces headquarters and called for IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to be killed. Others wrote on social media that Judge Maya Heller, who convicted Azaria, should be killed.
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But Netanyahu’s response was weak and stammering. He didn’t condemn these statements, nor did he express confidence in the judges and the verdict. Instead, he made do with the vague statement that “All Israeli citizens must act responsibly toward the IDF, its commanders and its chief of staff.”
When you read Netanyahu’s statement, there’s no choice but to conclude that the prime minister has thrown the chief of staff, the military justice system, army orders and the IDF’s values under the bus. For fear of the internet commenters, the polls and the seats that are fleeing from his Likud party to Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, Netanyahu bolstered the false narrative that Azaria’s supporters, public relations agents and attorneys have been disseminating for 10 months now – that the IDF chain of command threw “everyone’s son” to the dogs.
Of all the responses to the verdict, that of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stands out. He is the man who was ousted from his position because of the uncompromising moral stance he adopted in this case – the backing he gave IDF commanders and his refusal to capitulate to the extremists who, in his words, were trying “to turn the IDF into a gangland army.”
Ya’alon lashed out at Netanyahu; at his replacement as defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman; and at Bennett, the education minister. All of them, he charged, had lied to the Azaria family and the Israeli public as a whole and exploited the case for their own political purposes.
On this point, Ya’alon is correct. Lieberman showed up in court 10 months ago (before becoming defense minister) to support Azaria and demonstrate against the IDF’s commanders, Bennett infested the television studios to defend the soldier who opened fire, and Netanyahu capitulated to populism. All thereby fed the tiger of racism, incitement and hate. Unfortunately for them, a look at the responses that have appeared on their Facebook pages shows that just as beasts of prey usually do, this tiger has now turned on them.
One final point: The military court devoted 10 months of hearings and a verdict a hundred pages long to a single, tactical incident. The judges found Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter, and he ought to go to jail. But in the end, he is only a lowly sergeant.
The public discussion that needs to take place outside the courtroom should deal with a much bigger question – what degree of responsibility is borne by governments that continue to implement policies that put soldiers into an impossible situation in the West Bank. This situation is ultimately what led Elor Azaria to prison.