Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon responded yesterday to recent criticism of his handling of the Azaria affair, some of which came from his successor Avigdor Lieberman.
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Speaking at a forum at Bar-Ilan University, Ya’alon denied meddling in the case of Israel Defense Forces soldier Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a subdued terrorist in Hebron and is now on trial for manslaughter. Ya’alon stated that his comments that the soldier was not a hero and had violated orders came only after the IDF’s operational inquiry had been completed and found suspicions of a criminal act.
"This is not the heroic soldier they want to make him out to be, and that is why the brigade commander decided he would no longer be a combat soldier," he said, adding that "from there it became a criminal matter."
“I have not spoken with the Military Advocate General to this day on the matter because it could have been [seen as] intervening,” said Ya'alon.
“I did not associate with the criminal proceedings in any way whatsoever. I did not make a pilgrimage to the court as a head of a gang — forgive me for saying — in order to apply pressure,” said Ya’alon, hinting at Lieberman’s attending one of the sessions on extending Azaria’s pre-trial detention. Other Knesset members, including Oren Hazan (Likud), Oded Forer (Yisrael Beiteinu) and former Shas leader and minister Eli Yishai also came to the military court.
"When I found myself in Knesset, facing the wild attack first of all on the chief of staff [Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot] — 'How can they not give support to the soldier, the heroic soldier?' — then I went up and said what I said. I will not abandon the chief of staff," he said. "Whoever provides support for such an act does not give support to all the soldier's commanders, and not to his comrades either. Not to the platoon commander — and not to the chief of staff."
"So I said what I said, in light of the attack and the campaign that was run and financed — for what? To undermine the law and our values? To undermine the important decisions of commanders, who to my pleasure did not become confused and preserved their navigation according to the compass, and not according to internet commenters or political attempts to bring in influence. So those who accuse me should [first cast off their own sins]," he said.
He blasted the country’s leadership, saying that instead of trying to unite nation, they are busy with their own petty politics and divisions. “One time against Arabs, another time against settlers, this time against leftists, another against the ultra-Orthodox, again against the LGBT [community], and now Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. Where have they gotten this from? To look for divisiveness all the time?” asked Ya’alon.
The former defense minister said senior government officials are being delegitimized when they express an opinion that disagrees with that of the politicians they work for. He lamented defense officials and IDF officers being attacked as leftists — “For what? Because they are careful about the rule of law, its enforcement, because they protect the values of the IDF and its regulations?”
“Leadership that has self-confidence is not scared by criticism and does not act to silence it. It deals with it," said Ya’alon, "whether it comes from the media, a ruling of the Supreme Court or from senior officials who from a professional standpoint think differently.”
Ya'alon spoke about the possibility of a deal to return the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in action in Gaza two years ago during Operation Protective Edge and whose bodies remain in the hands of Hamas. Replying to a question about the campaign by their families, he said, "we need to do everything possible and as much as we can to solve this problem, but when they say ‘at any price,’ then the other side raises the price; and when you are willing to pay an excessive price, the other side raises exaggerated demands.”
Ya’alon, who opposed the prisoner swap deal for the return of Gilad Shalit, quoted the traditional rule of Jewish law: “We don’t redeem captives for more than their price.”
“The minute we are ready to pay an excessive price for captives, and even more so for bodies, we are inviting the next incident,” he said.
“It is important for Israel to adopt a very clear policy,” said Ya'alon, adding that it must be made clear to the other side as well. "Israel must stand firm so this exploitation by terrorist organizations will end," he said. "We must do everything possible to return the bodies and provide them a proper burial."
Ya'alon's speech was met with applause from the audience.