A supporter of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who is charged with manslaughter by the Israeli military, wears a shirt depicting Azaria with the words in Hebrew "Bringing the light back to Elor" during a protest outside the military court in Tel Aviv on the verdict day for the soldier, Tel Aviv, Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria and last week’s manslaughter conviction reflect the deep divide in Israeli society.
As determined by the IDF military court, Azaria was clearly and unequivocally guilty for shooting an already wounded Palestinian terrorist, who posed no immediate threat. He shot the terrorist out of revenge. Yet, despite the painstaking dissection of Azaria’s defense, presented in Judge Col. Maya Heller’s decision, polls taken later showed that around 70% of the public favors a pardon for the soldier.
That’s a worrisome figure reflecting a rift between public opinion and judicial prudence.
That’s because this has been such a personal trial.
Most Israelis have someone serving in the IDF who has been or could be in the same situation as Azaria was. The feeling among much of the public ranges from positions that Azaria is “one of our boys,” 18-year-old soldiers are put in “impossible” situations defending the country against terrorists and a soldier’s “mistake” in the heat of the moment is not a criminal offense.
Some were very vocal in their opposition to the conviction and the rule of law. Right-wing gangs gathered outside the courtroom in Tel Aviv, making anti-democratic spectacles of themselves in a demonstration that skirted with violence, making clear they were not about to accept any decision short of acquittal.
Even worse, some of the demonstrators shouted threatening slogans against IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen Gadi Eisenkot, such as “Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend.” And Heller as well as other judges and prosecutors had to be assigned bodyguards following threats posted on social media.
With such emotion surrounding the verdict, one would have expected the country’s leadership to make statements rejecting the lawlessness and violent timber surrounding the protests and support the court decision and the judicial system as having the final word. In other words, we may not like the outcome, but in a democracy, the law reigns supreme.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman rose to the occasion, saying “Even those like myself who do not like the verdict must accept and respect it.”
No sooner, however, had the court and the brawlers outside dispersed on Wednesday, than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his own statement on Facebook. Rather than skewer the rabble-rousers and condemn the incitement, Netanyahu undermined the court by calling for Azaria to be pardoned before he had even been sentenced.
“We have one army, which is the basis of our existence.
The soldiers of the IDF are our sons and daughters, and they need to remain above the dispute,” he wrote. “I support a pardon for Elor Azaria.”
No waiting for the sentencing, which for all anyone knows could be as lenient as time served, a virtual slap on the wrist that would both uphold the conviction and free Azaria. Instead the prime minister basically rejected the court’s carefully stitched decision and threw his lot in with public opinion.
It may not be popular to say, but it is premature to talk about a pardon for Azaria. As Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, wrote in The Jerusalem Post on Friday, “Since Sgt. Azaria and all the soldiers in the army are indeed our children, our greatest act of care and loyalty is to guarantee that they will serve in an army that truly aspires to be the most moral in the world.”
Whether we empathize with Azaria’s actions or not should not be a factor in whether he serves time or not. He must be held accountable for his actions on that day last March in Hebron. At the same time, the court should take into account the difficult circumstances surrounding the incident and not impose a harsh sentence.
Azaria’s life should not be ruined by his actions, but he and every other soldier must know that they cannot take the law into their hands. That is why it is premature to speak about a pardon. The trial, including sentencing, first needs to be completed.
Israel needs to remain a country where the rule of law is respected.