From time to time the question arises, why do we need a president? Maintaining the institution of the presidency costs taxpayers millions of shekels annually, claim critics. Unlike countries such as the US and Mexico, where the president is directly elected by the people and serves as the executive power, Israel has a parliamentary system, and the president is essentially a figurehead with few powers. Calls to do away with the presidency strengthened in the wake of president Moshe Katsav’s conviction for rape.
On Sunday, the nation was reminded why we need a president. In two separate and unconnected pardon decisions, President Reuven Rivlin demonstrated both moral courage and sensitivity.
In the case of Yonatan Hailu, who was convicted of murdering Yaron Eileen in Netanya in 2010, Rivlin took into consideration the fact that Hailu claimed he had been raped by Eileen twice and that he feared he would be raped a third time. Further strengthening Hailu’s claim was Eileen’s criminal past, which included the sexual molestation of a minor. The rape claim also explains why Hailu mutilated Eileen’s sexual organ after murdering him.
In contrast, Rivlin rejected the pardon request made by “Hebron shooter” Elor Azaria, arguing that the military court that found him guilty had already taken into consideration Azaria’s excellent military record. The court also found him guilty of manslaughter, not murder, despite suspicions Azaria’s shooting was premeditated and was not motivated by concern that he and others were endangered by the incapacitated terrorist.
Rivlin noted that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot had already reduced Azaria’s sentence by four months to 16 months, out of compassion for Azaria and out of recognition of his clean military record.
The two decisions taken together show how important it is to have a president with a well-developed moral sense, who is not under the sway of narrow political interests or populism, who has the power to pardon when he sees fit, and to withhold a pardon where it would be not only inappropriate but potentially destructive to our moral fiber.
Rivlin’s decision to shorten by a few months Hailu’s sentence makes him eligible to come before the prison parole board when it convenes next. Hailu, who had no previous criminal record and has undergone an extensive rehabilitation process during over six years of incarceration, now has the opportunity to be released and continue with his life.
In granting the reduced sentence, Rivlin was not caving in to pressure from members of the Ethiopian community, who claimed that Hailu was being discriminated against.
He rejected Hailu’s previous request, arguing it was made too soon after a Supreme Court decision that partially reversed a District Court decision.
Similarly, Rivlin resisted the populist forces on the Right when he rejected Azaria’s request. This is all the more commendable, considering Rivlin’s own right-wing political affiliation. The easy choice would have been to grant Azaria a pardon, especially since doing so would have shortened Azaria’s stint in prison by just three months.
He would have avoided the avalanche of caustic criticism – including a picture of Rivlin wearing a keffiyeh – that has dominated social media since he published his decision on Sunday.
Practically every leading politician on the Right, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has called to pardon Azaria. Politically speaking, this is the smart position to take, since the overwhelming majority of right-wing voters believe that shooting a terrorist, even if he is incapacitated and no longer poses a threat, is actually praiseworthy, especially in an age of prisoner swaps that result in the release of terrorists.
That is why it is important for the president to remind us that it is not the role of the soldier to take the law into his or her hands. Someone must stand up for the military court and the chief of staff, who believe that strict adherence to rules of engagement provide the discipline and order that are the basis for any effective armed force. The ethical principles laid out in the IDF’s Code of Ethics that restrict the use of lethal force to cases of self-defense are not just flowery words. They provide the IDF with the moral legitimacy to wage wars. These principles enable the left-wing kibbutznik and the right-wing settler to join forces under a shared moral code.
If the presidency exists for no reason other than to remind us of this, it is sufficient.