Ahead of the final week of testimonies in the Sgt. Elor Azaria trial, the huge impact of the Hebron shooting incident is emerging, with even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – in a rare round of media interviews – being asked about it. Netanyahu explained that he called the soldier’s parents, just like he “calls parents of soldiers who were killed or who are missing,” adding, “We back our soldiers.”
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Both parts of this statement are surprising. It’s strange that the prime minister compares the Azaria family – whose son is on trial for manslaughter in Jaffa Military Court after allegedly shooting to death a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March – and the parents of Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was killed in Gaza and his body has yet been recovered. Netanyahu invited the latter to join his entourage to the UN General Assembly in New York last week, as part of his efforts to get Hamas to return their son’s body.
It’s also strange that Netanyahu is aligning himself with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has declared his sweeping support for combatants regardless of the graveness of the actions attributed to them.
As usually happens with such remarks, Netanyahu's aides were quick to claim that he had made no comparison between the families and that it was all the leftist media's imagination. On Sunday morning, after seeing the unflattering headlines in the newspapers, Netanyahu already declared that there was "no comparison and can be no comparison" between the two cases, and said he apologizes if his "remarks were misunderstood." At least in this case, it only took him 12 hours to retract his statement. Israeli Arabs, whom Netanyahu warned were "going in droves to the polls" on Election Day, had to wait almost 18 months for a similar apology.
Now, without former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon standing in his way, Netanyahu openly supports the position of most of the Israeli public (based on the polls). He demonstrates understanding and empathy toward the soldier’s family, even if this could be interpreted as a challenge to the military justice system.
There were complaints from right-wingers that Ya’alon and other senior officers had “contaminated” the judicial process when they rushed to determine, based on the operational debriefing, that Azaria had violated the rules of engagement. But doesn’t the prime minister and defense minister’s explicit backing of the accused impact the public, if not the trial itself?
The media is now reporting on recommendations for Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek and military prosecutors to strike a plea bargain with Azaria and his attorneys. The oft-heard argument is that the trial is damaging the Israel Defense Forces, since it drags commanders and soldiers into mutual recriminations while giving conflicting versions.
Continuing this circus, some say, exacerbates the rift between the army’s senior command and society, and is creating a dangerous crisis among soldiers and junior commanders. The only way to stop it is to reach an extenuating plea bargain with the accused soldier, they say. In this context, there is even some expectation that IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot will personally intervene.
In reality, the defense already examined the possibility of reaching a plea bargain at the start of the trial. Similar talks have been held in the last two weeks. So far, as far as the prosecution is concerned, the ideas mentioned were nonstarters.
Azaria’s attorneys want to reduce the charge from manslaughter to the lesser one of illegal use of a weapon, avoiding prison time. However, it’s unlikely prosecutors will abandon the manslaughter charge, which shows some degree of intent and awareness in Azaria’s decision to shoot a wounded assailant.
The defense’s opening position is not an easy one. The repeated argument in the operational debriefing and the prosecution’s case revolves around the 11 minutes that elapsed between the initial shootings and Azaria’s subsequent actions. It rests on the obvious lack of concern of commanders, soldiers and civilians at the scene, as seen in photographs showing that no one felt at risk from the wounded Palestinian.
Even Azaria is seen putting his helmet down before opening fire. The prosecution emphasizes his initial version of events, in which he said the assailant “deserved to die” since he’d injured his buddy. This contrasts with later versions, where Azaria says he saw some movement and feared there was an explosive device on the Palestinian’s body.
The defense could have argued that a relatively young soldier was in an unusual combat situation for the first time, feeling pressured and so erred in assessing the danger, making a questionable error of judgment. Instead, they chose to present Azaria as the sole righteous person in Sodom while attacking the entire military system – from the chief-of-staff and the military advocate general to commanders on the ground, calling them a bunch of liars and amateurs who wished to cover up their failures by trumped-up charges. (A Facebook post made by one of the attorneys last week, which has since been removed, said the charges were all political.)
The defense made a lot of mileage using this tactic in media interviews. As the trial nears its end, the soldier’s associates claim the prosecution rejected bridging attempts and that the rapid process doesn’t allow for thorough discussion of the facts – even hinting at the judges’ bias against the accused. These feel like preparations for a conviction and appeal that will surely follow.
Before that, the defense will call Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai this week. In a brief presented by the defense, Zakai claimed that senior officers had acted scandalously from a professional and ethical perspective. He claimed that Ya’alon and Eisenkot’s statements were shocking, since they prevented any unbiased trial taking place. Zakai, who replaced Eisenkot as commander of the Golani infantry brigade in 1999, is not speaking publicly at present, presumably waiting for the end of the trial.
Despite Netanyahu and Lieberman’s statements and the assorted claims made by the defense, Eisenkot is convinced the army and its prosecutors have conducted themselves well, and that there was no alternative but to prosecute Azaria.