Elor Azaria Trial: The People’s Army vs. the People’s Politicians

Though the IDF chief of staff was threatened by an angry mob and military judges now need a security detail, Hebron shooter's verdict only spurred politicians inciting against army.

Right wing supporters of Israeli solider Sgt. Elor Azaria scuffle outside the Israeli military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.
Ariel Schalit/AP

The scene on Wednesday outside the military courtroom at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, where the ruling in the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria was read out, was unprecedented. An inflamed mob, only a stone’s throw from the General Staff building, called for the murder of Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and threatened to make sure his fate was the same as former prime minister (and chief of staff) Yitzhak Rabin.

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Such sights were not seen even after the big military failure in the Yom Kippur War. Then, and to a certain extent after the Second Lebanon War too in 2006, many bereaved parents demanded the chief of staff be fired, but no one threatened in public to murder him. Eisenkot’s sin was that he dared to say the army is not a gang but a hierarchical organization that must run according to an orderly system of values and orders. This was enough for many of the demonstrators to condemn him as a traitor worthy of death.

Eisenkot is well protected. We don’t have to worry too much about his security because it is already high - because of threats from Hezbollah, not the Israeli violent right. But what should worry the IDF, and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, is the safety of the three military judges who convicted Azaria, along with the military prosecutor, a reservist.

Their lives have been threatened openly on social networks, and the IDF has provided them with security too. Any attempt to harm them would be an extraordinary act – yet it would be unlikely to surprise anyone.

The rabble that seized control of the protest in support of Azaria did not come to identify with him, but instead to rampage and spread fear. Many of them are the same faces the police and Shin Bet know from previous incidents, such as the demonstrations of racist marauders from Lehava and La Familia. Two and a half years ago, a protest after the discovery of the bodies of the three Jewish youths who were kidnapped and murdered in Gush Etzion by Hamas terrorists turned into a hunt for Arab workers who just happened to be in downtown Jerusalem. These were events of the night of horror that ended the next day with the burning alive of an Arab teenager from Shoafat in East Jerusalem. With the exception of this case, the legal authorities have continued to treat Lehava and La Familia with kid gloves. There is no reason to assume that any of their leaders will change now, just because this time the thugs have threatened the chief of staff.

The politicians, instead of reining in these people, have joined in the festivities. Ministers and MKs from the right and center parties, who at the height of the wave of terrorist attacks a year ago advised soldiers and police to shoot first and ask questions later, rushed now to demand an immediate pardon for the convicted soldier.

Elor Azaria: Day of the incident-Court to make its decision.
B'Tselem, Ofer Vaknin, Ilan Assayag, Moti Milrod, David Bachar and REUTERS/Heidi Levine/Pool

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who since the shooting has managed to make every mistake possible, joined Education Minister Naftali Bennett in supporting a pardon. Netanyahu commented only briefly and softly about the attack on Eisenkot and the military justice system, but in his case it seemed his public support for Azaria was only part of a larger strategy. Netanyahu needs maximal support from the right at this moment in the losing battle he is fighting against the prosecutors and police in the corruption investigation against him.

It is hard this time not to notice the differences in approach and norms between the IDF and the politicians. These differences stood out in Eisenkot’s speech too. The day before the Azaria decision, when Eisenkot spoke about remaining statesmanlike and above the fray, as well as the moral world of David Ben-Gurion, ministers were busy trying to guess the direction public opinion was blowing.

In such circumstances, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has no choice but to behave as the relatively responsible adult among those attending the circus. A few days ago, Lieberman called on his colleagues on the right to be cautious about their dreams of annexation, after the UN Security Council resolution against the settlements, and the expectations in Israel from the election of Donald Trump.

Lieberman has been campaigning for calm from the television studios for the past two days, coming out against the attacks on the IDF. When you read his statements of support for Eisenkot, it is easy to be confused and think they were made by his predecessor Moshe Ya’alon, whose backing of the army in the Azaria case was one of the things that led to his ouster.

Lieberman, who does not hide his support for Azaria, certainly hopes for a pardon or commutation of the soldier’s sentence. But as opposed to his colleagues, it is clear he has learned the process in depth and understands it will be months before such a move can be completed.

Azaria will have three tracks to choose from in the future: A request for a pardon from President Reuven Rivlin; a request for clemency from his commander, head of Central Command Roni Numa; or the filing of an appeal with the Military Court of Appeals.

Rivlin and Numa can become involved only after the court completes the process by handing down Azaria’s sentence. The procedure for a decision by the head of Central Command can be conducted more quickly and simply. The pardon process with the president could take up to a year, and it also depends on the opinions of the military advocate general, chief of staff, head of the Manpower Directorate and defense minister. Some of them may very well recommend against a pardon.

It seems Lieberman’s calls for quiet and patience to allow the military justice system to work is aimed at the process of clemency by Numa. The top brass is allergic to the idea of a pardon, and as opposed to a decision by the general in charge of Central Command, a pardon from Rivlin will be viewed inside the IDF as external intervention that overrules the importance of the military court’s ruling, as well as the moral and practical lessons to be learned from it.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the filing of an appeal, Azaria’s legal team has brought in a new member, Yoram Sheftel, which can be compared to trying to put out a fire with dynamite. Azaria’s lawyers chose to present him in court as a hero who acted flawlessly during the incident, while the military command structure failed in its duty – a defense that was thoroughly rejected by the judges – which was similar to the pathetic demands that the judges disqualify themselves. Now a lawyer whose main fame in recent years has come from hysterical attacks on leftists and terrorists has joined the pandemonium.

In any case, it seems Azaria’s chances of winning on appeal are not very great. Appeals panels almost never intervene in factual, evidentiary questions – which were at the heart of the conviction and handled in great detail in the judges’ verdict. The judges did not show even a tiny bit of trust in Azaria’s various versions of what happened and why. And appeals panels are even less willing to intervene in questions of the trustworthiness of the defendant, who never testifies in front of the appeals court judges.