Police said Monday they were opening a probe into pictures of President Reuven Rivlin in an Arab keffiyeh, which have been circulating online in protest of his decision not to pardon an IDF soldier convicted of killing an incapacitated Palestinian attacker.
Rivlin’s decision to reject Elor Azaria’s pardon request drew harsh criticism from senior government officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Rivlin, who is perceived to hold a moderate stance toward Arab Israelis and Palestinians, also came under fire for his decision on social media.
By Monday morning, Rivlin’s official Facebook page had accumulated hundreds of messages criticizing the president and his policies. “You will be remembered forever as a president who acted against his own country,” one user wrote.
“You have used your position to create anarchy, go against the prime minister and defense minister in favor of the left,” another said. “You are a president of only 20 percent of this country, a president without a people.”
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.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted Monday that while he abhorred such “incitement” against the president, he opposed the opening of a police probe. “I have no doubt that the State Prosecutor’s Office will determine that this is not a criminal offense. Repulsive but not criminal,” he wrote.
In 2014, police investigated similar images of a keffiyeh-clad Rivlin that were being circulating online after he condemned Jewish-on-Arab racism in a Knesset speech.
A year later, police opened an investigation after images of Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dressed as Nazis were circulating on social media and right-wing sites.
Rivlin had told Azaria in a letter Sunday that commuting his sentence would “harm the resilience of the Israel Defense Forces and the State of Israel.”
He said the army’s moral values were the “core foundation of its strength,” and that the IDF “always stood strong in the just struggle for our right to a safe, national home.”
Azaria was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year for killing Palestinian stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif 11 minutes after Sharif had been shot and incapacitated during an attempt to stab Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron in March 2016.
Throughout his trial Azaria maintained that he shot and killed Sharif because he feared he was fitted with a bomb vest. A military court, however, dismissed Azaria’s claim, citing his nonchalance in the moments before he opened fire and killed Sharif, and his statements to fellow soldiers that the assailant deserved to die for attacking his comrades.
He was sentenced in February 2017 to an 18-month prison term that was later commuted to 14 months by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Azaria had completed his army service by the time of his sentencing but is serving his time in a military prison.
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.
Regev, the culture minister, who opposed Azaria’s imprisonment, criticized Rivlin for not taking the opportunity to set him free.
“It is very regrettable that President Rivlin gave in to unacceptable pressures and also chose to abandon Elor,” Regev said in a statement.
Liberman “expressed sorrow” at Rivlin’s decision to reject Azaria’s request.
The defense minister cited the “personal price paid by the soldier and his family” as well as the “public’s interest in this unique case,” in explaining why he believed Azaria should be freed early.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett also attacked Rivlin’s decision in a phone call with Azaria’s mother Sunday afternoon.
Rivlin’s decision sparked an petition calling to dissolve the office of the presidency. The online appeal Rivlin’s move proved that he “represents the left and not the vast majority of the Israeli public,” and called his role in political discourse “irrelevant.”
By Monday morning, the petition, initiated by a former IDF major, had garnered some 1,600 votes of the 500,000 it was seeking.
The effort was supported by Likud MK Oren Hazan, who posted a video on Twitter Sunday evening explaining why Rivin was no longer fit to serve as president.
The controversial lawmaker charged that the president had “lost all legitimacy” in the position, and accused him of imposing a left-wing agenda on the Israeli public.
“Its time for you to give the keys back and go home,” Hazan said, adding that he was pursuing other avenues to have the president removed from office.
On Sunday, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein struck back at Rivlin’s critics, accusing them of sowing discord.
“Keffiyehs? What have we come to? Even a slight deviation equals a betrayal? What next?” he asked.
In an apparent criticism of his fellow Likud members, Edelstein said, “If you think this is going to garner more votes for the party, you are wrong.”
Opposition lawmakers also defended the president from the online attacks, with the Yesh Atid party warning that they legitimized Rivlin as a target for violence.