Editorial |

Netanyahu Sawing Off the Branch He Sits On

Azaria had blatantly violated the IDF’s rules of engagement. Yet this didn't stop the prime minister from proposing a pardon

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3-R) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 30, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3-R) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 30, 2017. Credit: AMIR COHEN/AFP

Does the prime minister believe Elor Azaria deserves to be pardoned, or is his support for the idea merely a cynical move that allows him to be chummy with the Hebron shooter’s supporters and act rashly, knowing he isn’t the one who signs the pardons? Once more it seems Benjamin Netanyahu spied an opportunity to challenge the authority of others — this time, of President Reuven Rivlin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot — while pandering to his voters, and to hell with proper conduct.

Eight military judges in two courts rejected each defense arguments, one by one, and found Azaria guilty of manslaughter. They were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the wounded assailant posed no real threat, and that Azaria acted out of a desire for vengeance, with the coolness of somebody practicing at a shooting range.

Despite this harsh verdict, the judges made do with a relatively light sentence, 18 months in prison. Nevertheless, the prime minister saw fit to recommend a pardon, sending a clear message that he thought an injustice had been done to Azaria. In so doing, Netanyahu contributed to the further erosion of the judicial system, which has been under unprecedented attack throughout the duration of the trial.

The Azaria trial took place against the background of a broad public campaign against the army that included harsh statements by irresponsible politicians from both the governing coalition and the opposition, all thrown into the vacuum of the “stabbing intifada,” which was then at its height. Particularly noteworthy were the statements made by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who said “terrorists should be killed, not released”; Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who said “every terrorist should know he won’t survive the attack he’s about to commit” and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, who sought to ease the rules of military engagement, saying, “the orders should be very clear — you have to shoot to kill anyone who takes out a knife or a screwdriver.”

The prime minister heard them all challenging the chain of command on which the army rests, but remained silent. Then, as now, he lent a hand to attacks on the very institutions for which he himself is responsible, as well as to attacks on their senior personnel. And when the defense minister came out in defense of the system, Netanyahu got rid of him.

This leadership vacuum left the chief of staff with no choice. He was forced to warn the political leadership of the damage they were causing the military by blurring the IDF ethos. “If someone wants the ethos of a gang, he should say so,” Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The judges also left no room for doubt, saying Azaria had blatantly violated the IDF’s rules of engagement. Yet none of this stopped the prime minister from proposing a pardon for a person who undermined the ethos of the army that defends the country Netanyahu leads. One by one, Netanyahu is sawing off the governmental branches on which both a democratic state and his own government rest.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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