Netanyahu draws line between professional criticism and incitement

Police probing photos of Rivlin in keffiah

This depiction of President Reuven Rivlin circulated on social media (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
This depiction of President Reuven Rivlin circulated on social media
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a balanced response Monday to the uproar over photos that surfaced of President Reuven Rivlin wearing a keffiyeh after he rejected an appeal from Hebron shooter Elor Azaria for a shortened jail sentence.
Israel Police confirmed it had launched an investigation into the photos, which were similar to those opponents of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin created in opposition to his peace talks with the Palestinians before his November 1995 assassination.
Netanyahu said criticism must be professional and not include keffiyehs, statues, nooses, and Nazi uniforms, all of which had been used against him. But he said that in a democracy, it is permitted to criticize anyone, and not all criticism is incitement.
"Professional criticism is not only permitted but essential," Netanyahu told the Likud faction. "It is the soul of a democracy. One cannot always define professional criticism from the Right as incitement and criticism from the Left as freedom of expression." Netanyahu reiterated that he supported a pardon for Azaria, who is serving a 14-month sentence for manslaughter after killing a neutralized Palestinian attacker in Hebron in 2016.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is Netanyahu's number two in Likud, criticized the police he has authority over on Twitter for announcing the probe of the picture of Rivlin. Erdan said there was no place for besmirching Rivlin but there was no point in an investigation of the picture, which he said had no chance of leading to an indictment by the State Prosecution. The Likud was divided between those like Culture Minister Miri Regev, who said that it was "very unfortunate that Rivlin surrendered to improper pressure and chose to abandon Elor" and those who defended Rivlin, like former minister Gideon Sa'ar and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. After facing criticism, Regev released a statement saying she "condemns all acts of incitement and racism against every person and against the president of the state.'' Channel 2 reported that Rivlin told confidants he believed the criticism of him on social media was "organized" by someone in Likud and not coincidental.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay used their weekly faction meetings in the Knesset to complain that Netanyahu was taking too long to condemn the social media photos of Rivlin, which Netanyahu did an hour later.
"In 24 hours, the prime minister hasn’t found time to condemn the attacks on the president," Lapid lamented. "Miri Regev, David Bitan, and Oren Hazan have been making unacceptable statements about the president, and the prime minister has been silent like a fish as if he doesn't care." Gabbay said Netanyahu was responsible for there being a political culture that tolerates incitement.
"The prime minister is silent, because that is his culture," Gabbay said. "He sets the culture, and his emissaries implement it. He should call his emissaries to order." Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog stood solidly in support of Rivlin. He was angrily dismissive of Regev calling her “a minister who does not concern herself with sport, and certainly not with culture, and who has buried the Likud statesmanship of Begin and Jabotinsky.”
While no credible death threats to Rivlin have been made, over 1,500 Israelis have signed a petition calling for Netanyahu to abolish Rivlin's position as president. One user repeated the call on Facebook, demanding the cancellation of the institution of the presidency.
Aside from photos of the president in a keffiyeh, social media users posted memes of the president, attacking him and his rejection of Azaria's appeal. One read, in reference to Azaria "He's not guilty, he cries for help and he's not taken care of" while another post showed a photo of Rivlin with the brazen overlay text "You are not my president."
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.