Mob rule or rule of law

By failing to back the conviction of Elor Azaria and calling for a pardon instead, Benjamin Netanyahu has pitted the people against the ‘people’s army.’

January 5, 2017 21:51
3 minute read.
Azaria supporters

SUPPORTERS OF Elor Azaria, the soldier recently convicted of manslaughter, take part in a protest.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Before the gavel had even come down, the Elor Azaria verdict was going to be clouded in controversy and would echo loudly in Israeli society and indeed overseas.

Within hours of Azaria being convicted of manslaughter, a slew of politicians called for him to be pardoned, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not long in joining them despite a court ruling that had clearly rejected the IDF medic’s claim that he had been acting in self-defense when he shot a wounded Palestinian attacker in the head as he lay on the ground.

As the court read out its ruling, right-wing nationalist supporters of Azaria bayed and howled outside the military courtroom in Tel Aviv, shouting out slogans such as: “Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend,” a brazen threat against IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and referencing the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist. Eisenkot had, ahead of the trial, criticized calls for the judges to show leniency to the soldier.

Worse yet, the judges in the trial, as well as the prosecutor in the case, had to be assigned round-theclock protection following threats against them. “Col. Maya Heller will not see out the year,” one man posted on Facebook, referring to the head of the tribunal.

Support for Azaria in Israeli society is overwhelming even though the court ruled that he had acted not out of imminent danger, but out of revenge and the conviction that a terrorist should die. Polls show that around 70% of Jewish Israelis believe he should be pardoned.

Yet the rule of law is not rule by popular vote. It is incumbent on our public representatives and, in particular, on the prime minister to give full backing to the courts. Instead, they are attempting to overrule the court by pushing for a pardon even before sentencing has been passed.

When the case initially broke, Netanyahu said he expected IDF soldiers to act “in accordance with the rules of engagement” and that the Azaria case did “not represent the values of the IDF.” Yet as it became clear that the public was behind Azaria, the prime minister shifted his position, and now, following the verdict, he has come out in full support of a pardon.

“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 dispute. I support a pardon for Elor Azaria,” the prime minister wrote on Facebook.

Indeed, we do have only one army, but that army cannot tolerate a breakdown of discipline and hand over the rule of law to the mob – all the more so an army facing the complexities of having to patrol civilian areas such as Hebron, where the Azaria incident took place.

Indeed, by offering such a lame defense of the IDF – “I call on all citizens to behave responsibly toward the IDF, its officers and its chief of staff” – and by failing to instead stand up unequivocally for his chief of staff and for the ruling of the military court, Netanyahu pitted the people against the ‘people’s army’ and damaged the fabric of democracy. After all, as Netanyahu’s own attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, noted with regard to the trial, respect for the rule of law and judicial decisions is a cornerstone of democracy.

Once again, it has fallen on the military brass to stand up for what is right and speak out against what is wrong, where Israel’s political leadership for the most part panders to populist winds. Surprising in this context was the call by former Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich for a pardon for Azaria.

As Eisenkot said prior to the trial: “An 18 year-old who is drafted into the military puts his hand on the Bible and swears allegiance to the defense of Israel, to obey orders. We demand of our soldiers that they follow the IDF’s set of values, to defend the country with loyalty and love, to treat people with respect, to persevere in the mission. These are not mere slogans; this is a set of values.”

Netanyahu would do well, too, to listen to the words of his defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, who said: “A verdict has been delivered. Even those like myself who do not like the verdict must accept and respect it.”

Dura lex, sed lex. The law is harsh, but it is the law.

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