As Knesset advances death penalty bill, Israel at UN joins calls to end practice

Jerusalem one of 123 nations voting for resolution hailing the ‘possibility of moving away from capital punishment through domestic decision-making’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Gallows (CristiNistor/iStock)
Illustrative: Gallows (CristiNistor/iStock)

As the Knesset advances controversial legislation calling for the death penalty for convicted terrorists, Israel this week voted in favor of a United Nations resolution calling for a global moratorium on capital punishment in an effort to abolish the practice altogether.

Jerusalem on Tuesday was one 123 countries that supported Resolution A/C.3/73/L.44, which “expresses its deep concern about the continued application of the death penalty” and “welcomes the steps taken by some states to reduce the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed.”

Thirty-six countries, including the US, opposed the motion. Thirty abstained.

The resolution, discussed biannually by the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, welcomes “initiatives and political leadership encouraging national discussions and debates on the possibility of moving away from capital punishment through domestic decision-making.” It also hailed the fact that an increasing number countries decided to “apply a moratorium on executions, followed in many cases by the abolition of the death penalty.”

The resolution calls on states to “progressively restrict the use of the death penalty” and to decrease the number of offenses punishable by death.

At the same time, the resolution passed included an amendment reaffirming “the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties.”

Israel has supported a similar resolution on the moratorium of the death penalty in the past, but Tuesday’s vote appears to contradict efforts by its coalition lawmakers and comes just one day after a bill was discussed in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which calls to make it easier to impose the death penalty on convicted Palestinian killers of Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Championed by outgoing Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his hardline Yisrael Beytenu party, the so-called Penal Bill passed a preliminary vote on the Knesset in January. It is currently being prepared in committee for final plenary votes to pass it into law.

At this point it is unclear whether the governing coalition, which may fall apart soon due to Liberman’s resignation Wednesday, will advance the bill before new elections are called. Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer said Thursday that he expected the bill to be passed into law before the Knesset votes to dissolve itself and trigger snap elections.

“It can go very quickly because it’s a very simple law. It could be passed within two weeks,” he told the Knesset Channel.

On November 4, Netanyahu gave lawmakers green light to advance the legislation, reportedly rejecting the advice of the security establishment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although the death penalty formally exists in Israeli law, it has only ever been used once — in 1962 in the case of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust.

It is technically allowed in cases of high treason, as well as in certain circumstances under the martial law that applies within the IDF and in the West Bank, but currently requires a unanimous decision from a panel of three judges, and has never been implemented.

Yisrael Beytenu’s bill would allow a simple majority of two to one judges to impose the death penalty.

In July 2016, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that killed three Israelis, Netanyahu for the first time publicly supported the death penalty.

“The death penalty for terrorists — it’s time to implement it in severe cases,” he told members of the Salomon family, who had lost three loved ones in a brutal stabbing in the West Bank town of Halamish.

“It’s anchored in the law. You need the judges to rule unanimously on it, but if you want to know the government’s position and my position as prime minister — in a case like this, of a base murderer like this — he should be executed. He should simply not smile anymore,” Netanyahu said, referring to the terrorist, 19-year-old Omar al-Abed.

During his trial, the judges seriously discussed sentencing al-Abed to death, but ultimately handed him four life terms in prison.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday did not respond to numerous queries as to whether Netanyahu’s still supports the controversial bill and what his position on capital punishment is in general.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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