IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gadi Eisenkot indicated Sunday that he could pardon or shorten the year-and-a-half prison sentence of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, after an IDF Military Court of Appeals upheld his manslaughter conviction for killing an already “neutralized” terrorist in 2016.
In a statement after the ruling, Eisenkot stated that “the military court has spoken clearly and unequivocally,” and that if Azaria chooses to submit a request for leniency, it would be considered seriously “while examining all the relevant considerations and with my sole commitment to the values of the IDF and its fighters.
“The military justice system held an ethical, professional and impartial process and ruled independently and without any internal or external intervention,” Eisenkot said.
“The IDF under my command dealt with the incident, drew lessons from it and will continue to do so in light of the judgment given today.”
Supporters of Elor Azaria outside the IDF Appeals Court, July 2017
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called on Azaria’s family not to file another appeal, tweeting that they should, instead, request a pardon from Eisenkot.
“I have no doubt the chief of staff will take into consideration all the difficult circumstances and his being an outstanding soldier,” Liberman said.
Azaria’s relatives, friends and supporters asked that he be given clemency by President Reuven Rivlin, but a source within Rivlin’s office said no such request has been received.
Either Azaria or a member of his family can make the appeal, said the source who preferred to remain anonymous, but the appeal can be made only on condition that a simultaneous appeal is made to the chief of staff.
Indications are that Rivlin will wait for Eisenkot’s decision, said the source, who added that there was a precedent in the case of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who also appealed for clemency, and did not receive it immediately. In that particular case, the president held back until a decision had been made by the parole board as to whether to permit Olmert’s early release, and only then did he act accordingly.
The president is a strong believer in the legal system in both the military and the civilian courts, said the source, and will not do anything that would seem to override one or the other.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a chorus of politicians calling for a pardon for Azaria.
“My opinion has not changed on pardoning Elor as I expressed it after the [initial] verdict [in January],” he said in a Twitter post. “When the issue comes up for discussion, I will give my recommendation for a pardon to the relevant authorities.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev said Azaria should have been permanently home by now.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the decision is difficult, but that the court must be respected.
“Now, after a year and a half of troubles, it is time to pardon Elor Azaria,” he said. For the sake of our soldiers stationed on the front lines and so as not to lose our deterrence, Elor Azaria must be returned to his home.”
Bennett turned to the public and demanded that they refrain from attacking the IDF or its high command.
“I have nothing but trust in Chief of Staff Eisenkot and the IDF’s commanders. There is no room for calls against them, the likes of which were made in the past, under any circumstance.”
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said the decision to reject the appeal was important because it sent a message that soldiers cannot “take revenge like gangs.” She said she was sure that Rivlin would deny the pardon request and rule on the side of the law.
MK Tzipi Livni said: “The court had its say, again. [We] need to respect the IDF court’s decision and its values – without politicians advising the family or the chief of staff.”
Labor leader Avi Gabbay, meanwhile, said Netanyahu and Liberman should not have gotten involved in the case, stating that politicians should not intervene in a matter for the military courts.
In January, after Azaria was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, Netanyahu called it a “difficult and painful day for all of us.”
“The IDF soldiers are the sons and daughters of all of us and they must remain above all disagreements,” he said at the time. Netanyahu came under criticism last year for various comments made on this issue, initially criticizing the soldier, but later calling the family to express support.
Immediately after the incident, Netanyahu issued a statement that “the IDF expects its soldiers to behave with composure and in accordance with the rules of engagement,” adding that the incident in Hebron did not “represent the values of the IDF.”
Two days later he wrote a Facebook post saying, “The IDF is a moral army that does not execute people. IDF soldiers have absorbed with their bodies the terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens and deserve support.”
He also said he trusted that the IDF would conduct a thorough and fair investigation “as it always does.”
Nevertheless, he called Azaria’s father shortly thereafter and months later defended that phone call, saying he told the elder Azaria to have faith in the army.
In April 2016, Netanyahu said: “Our soldiers are not murderers.
They act against murderers, and I hope that the way will be found to balance between the action and the overall context of the incident.”
He also said he was certain the military court would take into account all the circumstances surrounding the incident.
“As a father of a soldier and the prime minister, I want to say again that the IDF backs up its soldiers. In my familiarity with the military justice system, I am convinced that the court will consider all circumstances regarding the incident.”Greer Fay Cashman and Daniel Altman contributed to this report.