Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken another step toward dismantling the foundations of Israel’s democracy. His objective is to undermine the legitimacy of the criminal investigation against him and strengthen his wish to establish an alternative regime: autocracy for Jews and apartheid for Palestinians.
Netanyahu responded to Wednesday’s manslaughter conviction of Elor Azaria – the army medic who shot a Palestinian assailant who was lying wounded after stabbing a soldier – by displaying wholehearted identification with the killer, his family and “the soldiers,” and with a call for Azaria’s pardon. There was no show of support for Israel Defense Forces commanders or the military justice system. The underlying message is clear: the judges in this case are treasonous leftists, just like the police and prosecutors who, according to the version voiced by Netanyahu and his supporters, are pinning criminal charges on him with the aim of removing him from power “not through the ballot box.” In Netanyahu’s eyes, he and Azaria are both innocent victims of the “old elite,” which is trying to uphold its rule through the courts and the army’s general staff, despite its repeated failures at the polls.
As usual, Netanyahu is not outlining his own beliefs but simply recycling messages touted by Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, who was the first to call for the pardoning of Azaria. The prime minister is careful to show restraint and distinguish himself from the demonstrators from anti-assimilationist group Lehava and La Familia (the extremist group associated with Beitar Jerusalem) – who called for the murder of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot – and posters on social media, who issued death threats against Col. Maya Heller, the head judge in the Azaria trial. Netanyahu can even argue that those calling for a pardon included not just right-wing politicians but also left-wing MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union).
However, Netanyahu’s modus operandi – to be dragged along rather than to lead, and to close his eyes to the murderous incitement from the right – should fool no one. A prime minister does not respond on Facebook, or wage a campaign to perpetuate right-wing rule. He has a great responsibility: to preserve the principles of nonpartisan governance, without which democracy and the supremacy of the rule of law will not survive.
Netanyahu, himself suspected of graft, betrayed this responsibility. He prefers mob rule over the professional legal system, which dispenses justice in accordance with the law and based on evidence. He prefers backing Arab-hating soldiers’ desire for vengeance over military orders. For him, the Azaria trial was yet another opportunity to hasten the demise of democracy.