Editor's Notes: True heroism

The Azaria trial is a watershed moment for the IDF and possibly for Israeli society at large.

By
July 14, 2016 21:36
Netanyahu Obama

Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Barack Obama at a meeting at the White House on November 9, 2015. (photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)

 
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In March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel. It was a time of growing tension between Jerusalem and Washington, and Biden came bearing a message – President Barack Obama had Israel’s back and would ensure it remained safe and secure as it tried to forge a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The trip would become infamous after Israel announced plans for construction in Ramat Shlomo, a Jerusalem neighborhood over the Green Line, the afternoon that Biden was visiting the capital. The announcement would cause a mini crisis with Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would call that evening to rebuke Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone conversation that would later be described to the press as “tough.”

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Before the building announcement though, Biden and Netanyahu convened for a private meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence. The two had known each other for a long time – Biden from his days as a Delaware senator and Netanyahu from his first term as prime minister. They emerged from the meeting arm-in-arm and in the ensuing press conference heaped praise on each other.

During the meeting, Biden tried to press Netanyahu to carry out a specific confidence-building measure for the Palestinians. It was a concession and while Netanyahu gave it some thought, he went on to explain to Biden that it was impossible.

“I’m not the president,” Netanyahu said, explaining that he didn’t have executive authority and that implementation of the measure could rock his already not-too-stable coalition. It was one thing, Netanyahu explained, if they were talking about a final peace deal. That would be worth risking the government for. This was just one measure.

Biden got the message. “It’s like Joe Biden Sr. used to say,” the vice president told Netanyahu. “Never crucify yourself on a small cross.”

It was a surreal moment. The Catholic vice president of the United States was telling the Jewish prime minister of Israel not to crucify himself in Jerusalem.

But the message was clear. Some moves are worth risking political survival.

Others are simply not.

That test might come again soon for the prime minister as the November- to-January conundrum draws closer, a reference to the two months between the presidential election in November and Obama’s White House departure in January. Israel fears that Obama wants to leave his mark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is what he will do and what Israel is willing to do to either prevent or minimize its impact.

The scenarios vary. In the best case, Israel hopes Obama will simply give a speech and lay out parameters for how he believes a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians should look. The reason this is the best scenario for Israel is because a speech is not legally binding.

It is given, makes headlines for a few days but is then forgotten. It does not leave a legacy.

The worst-case scenario for Israel would be for the US to decide to bring its own resolution - with new and clearly-defined parameters for how a peace deal needs to look to the United Nations Security Council. This would mean trouble but would mostly depend on the details. Government officials expect wording along the following lines: the establishment of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps, a just resolution to the refugee issue, Jerusalem as the capital for both peoples and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Let’s look at each clause. While President Barack Obama mentioned the ’67 lines in a 2011 speech, it would be the first time the US set it in stone in a Security Council resolution. The same goes for Jerusalem as the Palestinians’ capital. While the Jewish state recognition is important to Netanyahu, it is no more than a bone being thrown at Israel to ease the resolution’s overall blow.

The big question though is what kind of resolution it would be. Until now, Security Council resolutions related to Israel have been passed under Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter, meaning that they are not obligatory and do not have to be implemented.

This is the case, for example, with Resolution 242, which was passed after the Six Day War and became the cornerstone for diplomatic efforts in the decades to follow.

On the other hand, if the resolution were passed under Chapter VII, Israel would find itself in a whole new reality.

Chapter VII resolutions are binding and give the Security Council the authority to send forces or enact sanctions if sides do not adhere to their conditions.

While it is difficult to imagine the US taking such an aggressive step, in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, everyone is preparing for the worst. Israeli officials are already speaking with representatives of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to prepare for these “day-after election” scenarios.

The question is whether there is anything Israel can do to turn the tide.

One option being spoken about in political circles is the possibility that Netanyahu will freeze settlement construction, although this time just outside the settlement blocs. Such a move could be enough to get the Obama administration to do a freeze of its own and put any UN plans on ice. It would also put the burden of proof on the Palestinians. The ball would be in their court and Mahmoud Abbas would have to decide between coming to the negotiating table and continuing his intransigence.


The problem is that while a freeze might take away Netanyahu’s diplomatic woes, it would give him a political headache. It is unlikely that Bayit Yehudi would remain in a government that freezes settlement construction, a move that could be the pretext party chairman Naftali Bennett has been looking for to pull out of the coalition and rebuild his political capital from the opposition. Avigdor Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu would also have difficulty swallowing a freeze, although he would likely prefer to remain in government to continue building up his new defense credentials.

For the moment, neither side is showing its hand. Obama isn’t making any commitments regarding what he might or might not do in his last weeks in office, and Netanyahu will also wait until the last possible moment before making a move that could be seen as a concession and rock his coalition.

Whatever happens, crucifixion will not be on the table.

***
 
AT FIRST, David Shapira thought the gunshot sounds might be from fireworks.

Purim was a few weeks away and loud noises in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood were expected.

It was March 6, 2008, and Shapira – then a major in the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade – was at home putting his children to bed. But when the gunshots continued, Shapira understood something was wrong.

He pulled his sidearm out of the closet and ran across the street to the entrance of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva where a couple of policemen were already standing, debating what to do.

“Don’t go inside,” the policemen told Shapira. They knew an attack was under way but had no idea how many terrorists were inside and urged the IDF officer to wait for special forces to arrive. Shapira dismissed their warnings and dashed inside. He scanned the hallway and a few rooms until he got to the library where the screams were coming from. There, he identified the terrorist, opened fire and killed him.

Eight yeshiva students were murdered in the attack. Nearly a dozen more were injured. Had Shapira not entered when he did, the death toll would have been higher. In the citation of valor he later received, the IDF wrote that Shapira “demonstrated courage by taking action to save lives while putting his own life in danger.”

I mention this story because this week, Shapira took the stand at the trial of Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who shot and killed a Palestinian terrorist lying wounded and “neutralized” on a street in Hebron. Shapira testified as the former commander of the Shimshon Battalion and Azaria – better known as the “Hebron shooter” – was one of his soldiers.

Shapira told the court how he had arrived at the scene in Hebron shortly after Azaria shot Abdel Fatah al-Sharif in the head. He immediately conducted an impromptu review of the shooting and questioned Azaria. Together with the commander of the nearby regional brigade, Shapira was the one who ultimately decided to call in Military Police to investigate the incident.

During his testimony, Shapira said that Azaria had lied to him and had changed his story when questioned at the scene. First, Shapira said, Azaria told his immediate commander that he shot Sharif since “he was a terrorist and needed to die.” When Shapira questioned him at the scene though, Azaria apparently said that he shot Sharif since he was moving and a knife was lying nearby. In short, Shapira claimed, Azaria was a liar.

It didn’t take long for Azaria’s supporters to begin targeting Shapira. A Facebook group established to support the soldier quickly sprang into action to demonize the battalion commander.

The same happened a couple weeks before after Azaria’s immediate commander, Maj. Tom Naaman, also testified on behalf of the prosecution.

At the same time as Shapira was being cursed on Facebook, an online crowdfunding campaign was raising money to fund Azaria’s legal expenses.

By Thursday morning, over 4,000 people had contributed nearly NIS 600,000.

The Azaria trial is a watershed moment for the IDF and possibly for Israeli society at large. At a time when terrorist attacks are a regular occurrence throughout the country, the Azaria case has hit a raw nerve among Israelis who, like in previous wars and intifadas, are torn from within about how the government and the military should respond and if enough is being done.

The political intervention in this case from the beginning – Netanyahu called to support Azaria’s father as did other government ministers – has only made things worse.

Ultimately, we should have faith in the IDF’s legal system and in the three judges whose ruling will be based on the evidence and the facts and how they match up with the IDF’s legal code.

Nevertheless, sometimes it is important to remember what true bravery is and who the real heroes are. Shapira is one of them. Azaria, no matter how his trial ends, is not.

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