Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday called for a pardon for former IDF soldier Elor Azaria after his 18-month manslaughter sentence was upheld by a military appellate court earlier in the day.
“My opinion has not changed on the question of granting a pardon to Elor Azaria, as I expressed it after the [January] conviction. When the subject comes up [in the context of pardon deliberations], I will offer my recommendation for a pardon to the relevant authorities,” Netanyahu tweeted shortly after the ruling was handed down.
As a former soldier, Azaria would only be able to receive a pardon from President Reuven Rivlin or IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. However, it is unlikely that Rivlin would grant his release against Eisenkot’s recommendation. The IDF chief of staff has expressed criticism of Azaria’s conduct.
Since a pardon request can only be made once Azaria is in prison, his attorneys would have to forgo an appeal in order to seek clemency.
However, Azaria’s attorneys on Sunday indicated they would proceed with an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The appellate court accepted a 10-day postponement of Azaria’s reporting to prison to allow the defense to file an appeal.
If they do not lodge the appeal by August 9, Azaria will begin his prison sentence.
Despite being released from the army earlier this month, Azaria will serve his sentence in a military prison.
Should this happen, Azaria would only have to serve half his sentence, or nine months, before being eligible for parole, though there is no guarantee that he would receive it. This is different than in civilian criminal law, where a prisoner has to complete two-thirds of his or her sentence before they have a chance at early release.
Immediately after the ruling, Liberman had called on the Azaria family not to file an additional appeal, but rather turn to Eisenkot with a request for a pardon.
“I have no doubt the chief of staff will take all the difficult circumstances into account, including that [Azaria] was an outstanding soldier,” Liberman tweeted.
Before becoming defense minister, Liberman spoke out in support of Azaria.
On January 4, a military court found Azaria guilty of manslaughter for killing an incapacitated Palestinian stabber who had minutes earlier attacked with a knife two soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron in March 2016. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a demotion to private.
The divisive case had revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some seeing Azaria as a hero and others as a criminal.
Azaria had defended his actions saying he shot at Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in a snap decision believing the attacker, who he claimed was slightly moving, may have been armed with a hidden explosives vest or could have lunged for his knife, which was lying nearby. Prosecutors claimed there was no obvious danger from the critically injured attacker, who had been shot by another soldier, and that Azaria shot Sharif in the head to avenge his comrades, one of whom was injured in the attack.
Reactions from lawmakers across the political spectrum poured in immediately following a military court’s decision to uphold the manslaughter conviction and the 18-month sentence.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, said “the decision is hard, but the court must be respected. Now, after a year and a half of troubles, it is time to pardon Elor Azaria.”
“For the sake of our soldiers stationed on the frontlines, and so as not to lose our deterrence, Elor Azaria must be returned home,” he said.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) issued a similar response, tweeting, “The court has spoken. Now the responsibility is on the Israeli government to provide an immediate pardon and bring Elor home.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), a former IDF spokesperson, said Azaria “should have been safe in his home long ago. It is now in the IDF’s power [to release him], and this is the most basic act of support that Elor deserves. A pardon, and sooner rather than later.”
From the opposition, Meretz party leader Zehava Galon was one of the lone voices in the political system to celebrate the upholding of Azaria’s conviction and sentence.
“The judges of the court…dismantled every claim of the defense: there was no self defense here, and Azaria didn’t act out of any fear for his life, but was motivated by vengeance. The decision upholds the ethical boundaries that politicians have intentionally sought to obfuscate,” she said in a Facebook post.
Galon added that she was confident that Rivlin would not pardon Azaria and would uphold the rule of law.
Former chief of the IDF Manpower Directorate Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) urged fellow politicians to cease commenting on the Azaria trial.
“The military court gave its backing for the IDF’s code of ethics and for the chief of staff’s own support for the IDF’s ethics,” Stern said in a statement, referring to Eisenkot’s criticism of Azaria.
“The political interventions in this case have caused very great harm to the IDF, and also to Elor Azaria. I call on the prime minister, ministers and members of Knesset to stop dealing with this case and to leave the commanders to deal with the [question of] pardons.”