The most controversial army reservist in Israel is now a prisoner. As of Tuesday, Elor Azaria was saying goodbye to his family and preparing to start a manslaughter sentence.

A week earlier he lost the appeal against his conviction, meaning that to the shock of Israel’s right, he is due to serve a year-and-a-half for killing a Palestinian terrorist.

It has been a trial that has torn Israel apart. Azaria fatally shot an injured Palestinian terrorist when  Azaria was serving as a conscript, and while some say that the country has drawn an important red line by punishing him, others say that Israel betrayed an IDF soldier.

The question now is whether Azaria will serve anything close to his 18-month sentence, or whether he will be granted clemency by either the military or Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. His defense team is so set on clemency that it made a last-minute plea to the court on Tuesday to delay imprisonment while the matter is considered.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has a flair for promoting national unity. Getty Images

If Azaria’s punishment is eased, I think it should be done by Rivlin rather than the military, as he is a leader with a flair for promoting national unity. In such a circumstance, he should commute Azaria’s prison sentence but not pardon him. Here is the kind of speech that Rivlin should deliver:

“Today, I am taking an action, and making a declaration, that will subject me to criticism from both sides of the political spectrum in Israel — but I hope, in the long term, help to unify this nation.

“My action is to commute the sentence of Elor Azaria to community service. This will seem, through some eyes, to be the wrong move. After all, he opened fire when he shouldn’t have, to fatal consequences.

“Others will see this decision as a victory, and undoubtedly there will be some who will want to celebrate. But they should halt before they express joy.

“There are no winners here.

“Politicians who have tried to make political capital out of this case should stop the circus now. Citizens who have uttered stupid phrases like Azaria is one of the “heroes of Israel” should stop spreading delusion.

“Israel is a country of laws and our military is a military based on rules. Azaria is no winner after the legal process that he has been put through. And citizens, if you hear anyone cast Azaria as a hero in the future, I want you to respond with my words: This is not our way.

“Yes, we fight terror with all our might, but within the rules of the army. Azaria did not perform an act of patriotism, but rather an act that violated our national values and muddied Israel’s name internationally. My words today must never ever be twisted to justify what Azaria did.

“I am lifting the prison sentence, but Azaria’s guilt remains. Few 21-year-olds have their actions held up by their president as the antithesis of national values — but this is exactly what I am doing.

“There are moments in Israel’s history when there has been need for soul-searching, such as after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. We are at such a moment now, when some politicians and family members of the soldier need to take a long hard look at themselves, and ask whether the harsh language that they unleashed against the judges and the military was appropriate. I am saying loud and clear that it was not.

“I understand that my words today will anger some, while my action of commuting the sentence will anger others. But there is a logic. Israel is a country engaged in a long-running conflict. We must uphold the highest moral values and adherence to our laws despite the challenges we face from this conflict. At the same time, once the courts have done their job, thoroughly and impartially, we can make accommodation for the psychological impact that living with conflict has on our people.

“We are not yet a post-conflict society, and in today’s reality, much of the public finds it hard to accept that a young man, serving in the military in the thick of this conflict, is sentenced and imprisoned for actions taken against a terrorist in the aftermath of a terror attack.

“What such people feel does not generally imply that they are racist or full of contempt for Palestinian life — though some with such unsavory views have exploited their feeling — but rather that they find the outcome difficult to swallow when a situation arises with echoes of their two nightmare scenarios mixed together, namely a terror attack and their conscripted child making snap decisions in uniform.

“I am not pandering to the Israeli public, but I am showing understanding of a particular scenario that is difficult for people to absorb.

“When I signed the documents to commute Azaria’s sentence, I also signed papers to free a Palestinian currently held in Israeli jail. He does not have blood on his hands, but found himself caught up in militant activities at a young age and has since reformed.

“I stress that I am not equating the actions of these two men, but I do think it apt that a young Palestinian also gets his freedom today. My compassion in the thick of this conflict is not limited to Israeli Jews. As these two men go free I wish to focus on the fact that the conflict is putting young people on both sides in situations and under pressures that, I think we can all agree, they should not have to face.” 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.