One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most shameful political moves during this term was the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister. Netanyahu gave the Israeli government’s most sensitive portfolio to a person who clearly is unworthy of it. The previous attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, wrote – even as he was closing the main case against Lieberman and prosecuting him on a case derived from it (in which he was later exonerated) – that the suspicions had not been lifted from Lieberman and that the case was being closed for lack of sufficient evidence, largely because of the need for legal procedures in other countries. That is hardly a stamp of public approval.
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Before his appointment as defense minister Lieberman publicly voiced his support for Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is charged with killing a gravely wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron. On Monday, he expressed himself on the same issue, while also addressing a more recent incident, of a soldier charged with causing a Palestinian’s death in the West Bank town of Silwad. For Lieberman, the best defense is always an attack, with the “media” as the target.
“It would behoove the Israeli media to remember that in the state of Israel, as in any democratic country, only the courts can convict someone, in this case the [military] court,” Lieberman said on Monday. “Until a person is convicted, he is innocent, and that includes Elor Azaria and the soldier [from the incident in Silwad].”
Lieberman is being disingenuous. The media, a simplistic generalization in itself, isn’t judging or delivering any verdicts, for better or worse. It has only reported the utterances of officials in the chain of command and outside it, including Lieberman’s remarks in favor of Azaria, and those of his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, and Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, against Azaria’s actions. Ya’alon isn’t authorized to convict, and never purported to be, while Lieberman isn’t authorized to acquit. Lieberman doesn’t want to publicly confront the chief of staff, and thus strikes out at an easier target, “the media.” Inciting against it and identifying it with “the enemy,” he called on the media to “strengthen Israeli deterrence against its enemies, and not deter Israeli soldiers in their struggle against terrorists.”
The essence of his argument is that “people who fight terrorism every day can’t pursue their mission with a lawyer at their side.” He should know: During 20 years of police questioning Lieberman needed more than one lawyer at his side.
But in a military context, his argument is incorrect. The Israel Defense Forces goes on every mission, from a bombing to a patrol, accompanied by a lawyer. That lawyer is the attorney general, as the authorized interpreter of Israeli law and judicial rulings, and the military advocate-general, the representative of the rule of law in the military. There is a legal, moral, and practical reason for this. The military is not a gang, and indiscriminate firing will lead to an escalation that will harm Israel. Lieberman wraps himself in the pretensions of the minister responsible for the army, but he is in fact encouraging gang-like behavior.