Education Minister Naftali Bennett said on Saturday that if Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who was charged with manslaughter for shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant, is convicted, he should be immediately pardoned.
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Bennett, the leader of the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party, made his comments on the Channel 2's "Meet the Press."
The shooting incident occurred in the West Bank city of Hebron in March after a Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was shot and wounded and on the ground. Azaria has testified that he shot Sharif because he was concerned that the Palestinian might be wearing explosives and could detonate them.
The shooting of Sharif by Azaria, which was documented on video, was slammed by then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and others, but a number of political figures, including Avigdor Lieberman, who was an opposition Knesset member then but later succeeded Ya'alon, attended a pretrial hearing for Azaria in a show of support.
Coalition chairman MK David Bitan, who has already called to pardon the soldier, praised Bennett, but said that "we mustn't wait for Azaria to be convicted, he mustn't be convicted at all," claiming there was precedent in Israel for a presidential pardon before a verdict is handed down, citing the Bus 300 affair.
Dr. Amir Fuchs, from the Israel Democracy Institute, said Bennett's call for a pardon sends a "very problematic message to Israeli soldiers." According to Fuchs, Bennett's comments seem to suggest that either the "judges are incapable of meting out real justice" or "the trial is just a show that ends in a pardon."
The authority to pardon a soldier convicted of a crime is vested with the president, Reuven Rivlin, who can either reduce a soldier's punishment or entirely expunge the criminal conviction. When a request for a pardon is made, the military advocate general develops an official position on the request, which is then sent for comment to the head of the personnel directorate of the Israel Defense Forces in addition to the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister. The defense minister also develops his own stance on the matter for consideration by the president.
Separately, legislation on military justice authorizes a number of senior Israeli officers to reduce punishments imposed on soldiers, but the action must be taken within 30 days of the time when the punishment is handed down. The IDF chief of staff can take such action on punishments handed down by the military appeals court, while the heads of specific IDF commands can do so regarding military court sentences in their individual spheres of responsibility. After the internal IDF deadlines have passed, it is only the president who retains such authority.
Rivlin recently commented on the Azaria case in a recent chat session on Twitter, saying: "This trial could confront us with a yawning chasm and not just a slippery slope." And Rivlin added: "My grandchildren, who are soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, ask me, 'Grandpa, who should we listen to? To our commanders or to the voice of the masses?'"
The president responded: "We have an excellent army, we have the best commanders, we have a chief of staff who can't be bettered and you should listen to them and accept their decisions, because those are the rules of the game."