President Reuven Rivlin has been labeled a traitor in right-wing circles after refusing to pardon Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier currently serving 14 months for manslaughter after killing a prone Palestinian assailant last year.
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Rivlin announced his decision on the so-called Hebron shooter on Sunday, sparking an onslaught of angry responses on his Facebook page.
Following the reported dissemination of fake images of Rivlin wearing a kaffiyeh, the police say they are considering whether the pictures warrant investigation. The image of the Arab headdress is designed to inflame in Israel. Ahead of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murder in November 1995, images of him ostensibly wearing a kaffiyeh were spread to whip up negative sentiment among the public.
Another picture of Rivlin uploaded to Facebook shows him in caricature form, waving a tiny Palestinian flag.
Rivlin elaborated on his decision on Sunday night. “Considering the crimes committed by Elor Azaria, the materials, and the opinions brought before me, it was decided to reject his request for a pardon,” the president wrote on his Facebook page.
His post triggered dozens of negative reactions.
“You have betrayed the Jewish people and the Israel Defense Forces, betrayed your people – you are the president of the Arabs and the left,” one person wrote.
“You are betraying the right wing whence you came, betrayed [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and mainly betrayed the people. I am ashamed you are my president [you] scum,” wrote another.
“Rivlin the traitor, be ashamed. You forgot love of Israel,” wrote a third.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the backlash at Monday's Likud faction meeting, saying that in a democracy anyone can be criticized, and that not every criticism is incitement. He added that his only request is that "criticism be made respectfully without kaffiyeh and Nazi uniforms."
Netanyahu added that criticism from the right cannot be categorized as incitement while criticism from the left is called freedom of speech.
Rivlin was criticized by other Likud lawmakers, including Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who said he had damaged the institute of the presidential pardon and had “chosen to abandon Elor who should not be sitting one more day in prison.”
Coalition head David Bitan said that, “interestingly,” Rivlin had shown compassion for “his friend,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while failing to show the same emotion for Azaria, even though he “deserved it.”
Speaking on Army Radio, Bitan added, “I am sorry for all the times I voted for Rivlin when he was a Likud candidate for the Knesset. I have severed contact with him and am not speaking to him.”
Azaria began his 18-month sentence in August. A month later, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot shortened Azaria’s sentence by four months, even though he noted Azaria had not expressed remorse.
If Azaria receives a third off his prison sentence for good behavior, he could be released on March 30, 2018. If not, he will be imprisoned until September 30, 2018.
In March 2016, Azaria, then an army medic, shot and killed Abdel Fattah al-Sharif as he lay motionless on the ground, severely wounded after committing an attack on a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Knesset Deputy Speaker Nava Boker wrote on Sunday that Israel should “not abandon our soldiers on the battlefield. That is exactly what the president of the State of Israel has done,” the Likud lawmaker stated. “It is a shame he did not realize that Elor and his family have already paid a heavy price and the message has been delivered,” she added.
MK Oren Hazan (Likud) said Rivlin had lost his legitimacy to continue acting as president, preferring photo ops and doughnuts to backing Israel’s soldiers and pardoning Azaria.
Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz struck a more conciliatory tone, writing on Facebook on Monday that he too thought Azaria should have been pardoned, but the president judged and decided otherwise. Criticism is legitimate in a democracy, Katz wrote, but “the personal attacks on the president are a disgrace and cross the line. They should stop immediately.”