Benjamin Netanyahu excels at identifying undercurrents that jeopardize his rule. When he does so, he is prepared to bend moral principles that lie at the foundations of the state. The prime minister provided an infuriating example of this faulty conduct on Thursday night, when he phoned the father of the Israel Defense Forces soldier who is suspected of killing a Palestinian man who assaulted other soldiers.
The story is playing out on three levels. There is an operational investigation, or field inquiry, whose negative conclusions for both the soldier and his direct commanders are clear. On the legal level, the defense and the prosecution are facing off in military court, over the Military Police investigation. And on the political level, there are rallies and expressions of support for the soldier from Knesset members and cabinet members, alongside assessments of the affect of public opinion polls on the popularity of figures in Likud and Habayit Hayehudi.
Netanyahu’s first response to the incident in Hebron was to agree, if limply, with the position of the IDF Spokesman’s Office, the chief of staff and the defense minister, according to which the soldier deviated sharply from the army’s avowed (if not always applied) values. But as the right’s attack on the IDF mounted, Netanyahu retreated and began to appease his voters. The method chosen was a phone call to the father of the soldier, a soldier who faces manslaughter charges.
As is his wont, Netanyahu hid behind his personal status — “as the father of a soldier” — to tell the father of the homicide suspect that he “understand[s your] distress.” Netanyahu is not a private citizen acting as a parent, and the mention of his son Avner, who serves in an administrative position in the home-front base of a combat unit, is gratuitous, unfortunate and will focus the spotlight that the Netanyahu family generally avoids.
Netanyahu’s words, ostensibly supporting the military and its “examination” — an odd name for a criminal investigation — are lip service. The phone conversation’s content is less important than its having happened, which is a signal to the military prosecutors and judges, to the chief of staff and the defense minister. It is obscene political interference in a judicial process. In a panicked effort to avoid losing votes, Netanyahu is tripping up the chief of staff and using force to affect the charge sheet and the court’s verdict. The prime minister, who regularly takes umbrage at being judged by the public and the media, has himself become a judge on behalf of the street.
Israel’s citizens and soldiers have a right to expect Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to stand up publicly for the military legal process and against Netanyahu’s conduct. From the prime minister himself, nothing can be expected as long as political survival is his chief concern.
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