Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded Monday to a volley of attacks on President Reuven Rivlin, defending the right of lawmakers to criticize the head of state but urging that it be done in a respectful manner and without provocative imagery.
Rivlin came under fire Sunday after he refused to grant a pardon to former IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who was imprisoned after being convicted for the manslaughter of a prone and injured Palestinian attack he shot dead in the West Bank city of Hebron during his army service.
Some of the harshest criticism against Rivlin for his refusal came from Likud lawmakers, and police said they were opening an incitement investigation after a doctored picture posted on the president’s Facebook page showed him wearing an Arab headdress. Opposition leaders condemned Netanyahu for not speaking out against some of the vituperation directed at the president.
“In a democracy, you may criticize everyone,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Likud faction meeting. “Not all criticism is incitement — but it should be without keffiyehs, without statues, without nooses, and without Nazi uniforms that we have all been dressed in” — a reference to previous incidents in which members of the public depicted the prime minister in a Nazi uniform as a form of criticism.
However, he said, the right wing was often unfairly attacked for expressing legitimate criticism.
“With regard to substantive criticism it is not only permitted, it is essential,” the prime minister continued. “You can’t always define substantive criticism from the right as incitement and substantive criticism from the left as freedom of speech… Because that is the basis of democracy. ”
He also noted that he disagreed with Rivlin’s decision not to pardon Azaria, who is serving a 14-month sentence for manslaughter.
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, in contrast, rapped Likud politicians for condemning Rivlin’s pardon decision.
“Politicians are not supposed to deal with pardons; this is the job of the legal system, not the political system,” Gabbay said at the weekly faction meeting of the Zionist Union, which is made up of the Labor and Hatnua parties. “We hear the embarrassing attacks by politicians in Likud [against the president] and the prime minister is silent because this is the political culture that he is instilling.”
“Those doing the attacking are his [Netanyahu’s] messengers and so don’t need to be called to order,” Gabbay scoffed.
Speaking just before Gabbay, Zionist Union faction chairman MK Yoel Hasson thanked Rivlin for his “brave decision” to commute the sentence of Yonatan Heilo, who was serving time for killing his rapist.
“The president did the right and moral thing,” Hasson said.
Following Rivlin’s decision, announced Sunday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who opposed Azaria’s imprisonment, criticized the president for not taking the opportunity to set Azaria free.
“The president had an opportunity to fulfill the proper purpose of the institution of pardoning. It is very regrettable that President Rivlin gave in to unacceptable pressures and chose to join those who abandoned Elor,” Regev said in a statement. “It is a great shame that the president didn’t end this saga today.”
Coalition chairman David Bitan echoed Regev, saying at the time that Rivlin had missed an opportunity, and outspoken Likud MK Oren Hazan said Rivlin should step down.
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, speaking Monday at his own faction meeting, called on Netanyahu to bring his party’s lawmakers into line.
“Since yesterday the prime minister has not seen fit to get up and condemn all of the attacks on the president of the country,” Lapid said. “There are pictures of him [Rivlin] with a keffiyeh and calling him a Nazi. Miri Regev, David Bitan, Oren Hazan are saying things about the president in intolerable language — and the prime minister is silent as a fish, as though it has nothing to do with him.”
The keffiyeh is a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. The photo is resonant in Israel because it recalls an infamous doctored image of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the traditional Arab headscarf, which was disseminated as part of a vicious campaign against him following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994 and before his assassination.
Azaria’s months-long trial and conviction revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some hailing him as a hero for killing an attacker and others deploring his actions.
Azaria, at the time of the shooting an enlisted serviceman in the IDF, was convicted of manslaughter for killing Palestinian stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who had been shot and disarmed some 11 minutes earlier after he attacked soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron in March 2016.
Currently, Azaria is scheduled to be released in October 2018. However, he may get out of prison before then, as, under military law, a prisoner is eligible for parole after half the sentence has been served.