Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (L) takes part in the weekly cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R).
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Wednesday’s manslaughter conviction of Hebron shooter Sgt. Elor Azaria was not just a win for the IDF prosecution, it was also a big win for former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Ya’alon came out against the so-called Hebron shooter and labeled him a murderer only hours after Azaria’s March 24 shooting of “neutralized” Palestinian attacker Abdel Fatah al-Sharif.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the early days also criticized Azaria, once he realized that public opinion had swung in Azaria’s favor, he started expressing sympathy for him and his family, including battling publicly with Ya’alon over the case.
The more Netanyahu supported Azaria and left the IDF and the IDF legal division open to criticism – including by then-opposition MK Avigdor Liberman – the more Ya’alon doubled- down and criticized Netanyahu and others for lacking principles.
This fight, among other things, eventually led to Netanyahu firing Ya’alon and bringing Liberman in to replace him.
This was Liberman who slammed the IDF and its legal division for even filing an indictment, and who showed up next to Azaria in court in the legal proceedings’ earliest days.
Azaria’s defense lawyers continued to push down Ya’alon, accusing him during the trial – even as he was out of office – of having indirectly rigged the trial with his initial statements that Azaria had committed murder.
Every criticism by defense lawyer Ilan Katz that some unnamed invisible force had pressured the IDF legal division and was exercising undue pressure over the Jaffa Military Court to nail Azaria, was directed at Ya’alon.
But then the trial started to march against Azaria. Liberman, after reading the writing on the wall, and still needing to work daily with the IDF top brass and the IDF legal division, started to moderate his statements, saying he trusted the military courts to make the right decision.
On Wednesday, Ya’alon got his revenge, which was highlighted most by him and Liberman switching places rhetorically in some respects.
It was Liberman on Wednesday and Thursday who was defending the IDF and the military courts and fighting against Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s declaration calling for an immediate pardon.
In contrast, while Ya’alon praised the court, he also expressed sympathy with Azaria and his family. Ya’alon probably does feel that sympathy, but such pronouncements are also the pronouncements of a victor who, secure that he called the result correctly, can show flexibility to the other side.
Liberman, who never changes his views, looks very shaky, and Ya’alon looks unshakable.
It seems that Ya’alon has had the last word over Liberman.
Then again, there are some counter-intuitive scenarios from here, since the court’s ruling is not the end of the game.
In the event that Azaria loses his appeal and loses a request to IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot for a pardon, Azaria can go one step higher and ask Liberman as defense minister to propose to President Reuven Rivlin to pardon him.
Rivlin gets the last say. Nonetheless, any position Liberman takes publicly on the pardon issue at that point could revive his political fortunes – or make them worse.
Last, while Azaria’s support has dropped, currently two-thirds of the public support pardoning him and a slight majority are against the conviction.
In that sense, even as Ya’alon called the right result, he may not be rewarded politically when he attempts his political comeback.
With these additional scenarios open, Ya’alon is in a stronger position than Liberman now, but we are not at the end of the road.