How an IDF Soldier Suspected of Manslaughter Has Evolved Into Israel's New Dreyfus

By a twisted logic, Sgt. Elor Azaria can argue that the accusations against him are political, and that the only reason he was arrested was to placate one political side, the left.

Sgt. Elor Azaria in military court in April 2016.
Ariel Schalit/AP

Elor Azaria, the “shooting soldier,” is standing trial for a political crime. It’s true that officially he is being tried for manslaughter, but the serious counts for which he won’t be prosecuted are related to sowing division in the nation, shooting at the foundations of democracy and a suspicion of causing the army to rebel against the “political leadership.”

Azaria killed a wounded Palestinian assailant, and his defense is based on the question of whether his actions stemmed from a fear of danger to his life and the lives of those around him, or from an assumption that the assailant had to die. The video clips from the scene ostensibly speak for themselves, and his attorneys will battle over their interpretation, but Azaria became a symbol even before the trial, and as such he is already a political actor.

The power of this symbol contributed to the ouster of the defense minister, and caused the prime minister to embrace the shooting soldier as though he carried the banner of a fighting Zionism. Azaria drove a wedge between the political and military leadership, causing an almost direct clash between the military chief of staff and the incoming defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who hastened to visit Azaria in court. In short, Sgt. Azaria has divided the nation.

Yet Azaria committed a far more serious crime: He caused a conflict within the ruling coalition. “The political leadership, and certainly a minister in Israel, must not decide on the fate of the soldier – certainly if you’re a defense minister – before the end of legal proceedings,” Lieberman said this week during a visit to an army induction base. Lieberman doesn’t intend, of course, to undermine the legal proceedings. He was bringing this indictment against his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, who broke ranks to warn about the danger of a loss of values.

The political leadership must not be involved in that, according to Lieberman, certainly not a minister. First you have to hear what the people want, read the newspaper headlines, check out the opinion of the prime minister, and only afterwards cautiously word the proper reaction. That’s how a proper decision-making process is conducted. The competition must be fair, everyone must be on the same starting line, before grabbing for the credit.

This interpretation is rejected by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. In a case like this, she says, first come, first served. She also knows how not to play by the rules. Although it took a little time to stop the Israel Defense Forces’ moral assault, and though she was preceded by the prime minister – who even considered visiting the Azaria family – Regev showed up in the courtroom and embraced Azaria. The only thing missing was for her to start chanting, “He’s innocent.”

She and the other MKs who are upset by the chutzpah involved in prosecuting a soldier for obeying the spirit radiated by the government, turned the courtroom into a political theater in which the defense attorneys, military prosecution, judge and even Azaria no longer have any real role to play. They’re only extras in a competitive exercise in patriotism.

This patriotism has familiar criteria – primarily unreserved support for the spirit emanating from the words and deeds of the prime minister. Azaria merely provided these patriots an address and a pilgrimage site. In other words, anyone who embraces Azaria is like someone who kisses the Kaaba – he is immediately considered a Netanyahu supporter. Anyone who opposes him is a hater of Israel, and there’s no need anymore to await the outcome of the trial.

That’s how the “shooting soldier” has turned into something larger than himself. He is now a public figure, one who focuses the worldviews of his supporters and his opponents. As such he will be able to argue that the accusations against him are political rather than substantive, and that the only reason he was arrested was to placate one political side, the left, which includes the IDF.

Azaria is now running on a track that will raise him to the status of Dreyfus, and this could be an effective defense. And because Israel isn’t Turkey and doesn’t arrest people for their political activities (except in the occupied areas), there can be no choice, according to this twisted logic, but to demand Elor Azaria’s immediate release.