JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized on Sunday after facing criticism for comments in which he seemed to compare a soldier currently on trial for manslaughter with troops killed in combat.
In an interview broadcast on Saturday night, Netanyahu was asked if he regretted telephoning the father of Elor Azaria, on trial for shooting a Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay on the ground without posing any apparent threat.
“Not at all,” Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 television from New York, where he had attended the United Nations General Assembly, saying he told the soldier’s father to trust the military and its judicial system.
Asked if he telephoned other parents of soldiers accused of breaching the army’s code of conduct, Netanyahu said “No”.
The premier, however, said that he “called many parents who were in distress after their sons were killed in action or had gone missing, or were killed in action and went missing.”
“The citizens of Israel are greatly distressed here,” he said of the Azaria case.
The front page of Sunday’s Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling newspaper and often hostile to Netanyahu, called it an “infuriating comparison”.
Netanyahu responded on Sunday.
“I’m sorry if my remarks were misunderstood,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
“In no way did I intend on comparing between the pain of bereaved families, pain I’m very familiar with, to the condition of other parents in distress,” wrote Netanyahu, whose brother Yonatan was killed while commanding a military operation.
“There is no comparison, nor can there be any.”
Azaria’s case has deeply divided Israeli public opinion, with top military brass condemning his actions and rightwing politicians arguing he has been unfairly treated.
A military court in Jaffa was on Sunday holding a hearing in Azaria’s trial, which began in May.
A widely circulated video of the March 24 incident showed the Palestinian lying on the ground after stabbing and moderately wounding an Israeli soldier, according to Israeli authorities.
Azaria, who was not at the scene during the alleged attack, then appears in the footage and is seen shooting him in the head without any apparent provocation.