Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly apologized Sunday morning for comments broadcast the night before, which were widely interpreted as comparing the fate of the parents of Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier on trial for manslaughter, to the parents of fallen soldiers.
In an apparent effort at damage control, after his words were slammed by opposition politicians and many in the media, Netanyahu posted from New York the following on his Facebook page: “I’m sorry if my words were not understood properly. In no way did I want to compare the suffering of bereaved families – suffering I know very well – to the situation of others who are in distress. There is no comparison, and can be no comparison,” he said.
This response followed a more defiant one released by his spokesman three hours earlier, saying that efforts to cast Netanyahu’s words as if he were comparing Azaria to fallen soldiers were a “base, distorted and lying” misrepresentation.
“The prime minister respects the bereaved families and the families of missing soldiers, and knows full well their impossible pain,” the statement said.
Azaria is currently on trial in an IDF court for manslaughter, charged with the killing of an already neutralized terrorist in Hebron in March. The firestorm was triggered Saturday night when Netanyahu, in an interview with Channel 2’s Udi Segal, was asked whether he regretted a controversial phone call to Azaria’s father soon after the incident.
“No, not at all,” Netanyahu said. “Do you know what I said to him, word for word? ‘Put your trust in the army, in the chief of general staff, the commanders, our soldiers and our justice system.’” Asked then whether he has in the past called soldiers or parents of soldiers who violated IDF orders, Netanyahu replied, “No, but I called many parents in distress, because their sons fell, or were missing.”
Netanyahu then went on to explain the distress facing many parents who send their children into the army to face “impossible situations.”
“On the one hand, the soldiers need to defend themselves, yet on the other, they cannot be fast on the trigger,” he said. Leaning on his experience as an officer in the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, he said he was aware that this is not always easy.
In an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday, Netanyahu acknowledged that his words to Channel 2 were “not the most successful.”
In that interview, he also slammed Yediot Aharonot for devoting its front page on Sunday to a “an intentionally distorted commentary” of his words, saying this was something the paper “should perhaps think twice about.”
Shortly after Netanyahu’s comments were broadcast Saturday night, former prime minister Ehud Barak took to Twitter to blast the premier.
“Anyone who compares Elor Azaria to Israeli heroes and missing soldiers is someone frightened and confused, who has lost any remnant of judgment or, God forbid, decided to try and destroy the IDF’s values,” he wrote.
“It is impossible to permit this,” he said, adding that if Netanyahu does not retract the statement, he will “carry the mark of Cain, as someone who forgot what it is to be an IDF fighter.”
This was the second time this month that Barak has pummeled Netanyahu, taking to the US media to do so earlier this month after Israel and the US signed a $38 billion military aid package. Then, as now, he accused Netanyahu of being “frightened and confused,” a theme running through his criticism of the man he once served as defense minister.
The Zionist Union’s Shelly Yacimovich told Israel Radio that Netanyahu’s comments were a disgrace. His comments, she said, stem from his looking at the polls, and seeing that many in the country, and especially among his voters, identify with Azaria.
“He saw that this is the trend, that it is something that works well in the polls, and for that reason had no problem trampling values,” she charged.
Likud Minister-without- Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi came to the prime minister’s defense, saying he clarified he meant no comparison between Azaria and the bereaved families.
At the same time, Hanegbi said, the world of Azaria’s family has been turned completely upside down and “he [Azaria] is going through hell. True, he was not killed in battle, but he is still facing the danger of spending many long years behind bars after being sent by all of us to defend the State of Israel.”
Channel 20, meanwhile, broadcast the tape of Netanyahu’s March conversation with Azaria’s father, Charlie.
Saying that as a father to a soldier he understands Azaria’s distress, Netanyahu added that he was sure the investigation would take into account the complicated situation in which the soldiers are placed. He also said he fully trusted the army, the chief of staff, and the investigation, and that Azaria should trust them as well.
When Azaria said he had information that Netanyahu did not know, and which would convince him, the prime minister said Azaria should present all the information he has to those investigating the incident.
As Azaria began crying during the brief conversation, Netanyahu said, “I understand your emotions, and I trust the investigation, and they will give him [Azaria] every right to defend himself. I want you to believe that, act accordingly, present everything you have, and I am sure the investigation will be fair and professional. I am sure about that.”