Backing death penalty, Netanyahu loosens noose around coalition’s neck
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Backing death penalty, Netanyahu loosens noose around coalition’s neck

With Shabbat bill and changes to Jewish state proposal, PM appears keen to placate his government partners and avoid elections

Marissa Newman

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

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

For weeks, the governing coalition has appeared to be unwittingly sidling toward early elections.

The coalition wobbled three weeks ago, with health minister Yaakov Litzman’s resignation over Shabbat train maintenance. It was rattled by an adamant refusal by the Kulanu party to support the so-called “recommendations” bill should it apply to investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to which the prime minister eventually gave in.

Deepening the tensions, Shas leader Aryeh Deri was rumored to threaten resignation unless his Shabbat bill went ahead, amid staunch opposition by Yisrael’s Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman and several other coalition MKs. Liberman has made plain he also opposes the revised so-called Jewish state bill — long sought by Netanyahu and his Likud party as well as the Jewish Home party — as it would compromise minority rights and turn Israel into a “halachic [Jewish law] state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri at a press conference in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While stressing he did not want to push Israel into new elections, Liberman appeared to be bracing himself for the possibility nonetheless, including by sparring with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and reviving some of his anti-Arab rhetoric — a staple of his past political campaigns. He warned that elections, though not sought, would be squarely the fault of the ultra-Orthodox parties. And he revived a long-dormant demand laid out in his five-strong party’s coalition agreements: his long-time campaign promise to advance the death penalty for terrorists.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has two criminal investigations hanging over his head; his ally and coalition chairman David Bitan is being interrogated by police in a separate case; and thousands in Tel Aviv have rallied against corruption in the government for three consecutive weeks.

Coalition chairman David Bitan arrives at the Knesset on December 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The cloud of suspicion over Israeli leaders, the coalition’s Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon made clear this month, set him on edge. “This is a bad time,” the finance minister conceded on December 4. “It’s unpleasant to be a minister in a government at this time with all the investigations.”

Kahlon’s announcement on lowering product tariffs, at a press conference held while Netanyahu was abroad, was also seen by Israeli political observers as part of a campaign to highlight his accomplishments as treasurer. Massive Kulanu billboards popping up across the country in past months served as another, unsubtle clue of his aims.

And so, even as coalition leaders cautioned that heading to the polls would be a mistake, and Netanyahu maintained that the government was as stable as can be, a return to the ballot boxes nonetheless appeared nigh.

Two announcements on Sunday, however, appeared to hand the coalition at least a temporary reprieve.

Keep the coalition happy

The first came when Tourism Minister Yariv Levin announced the coalition would vote on the centerpiece Jewish state bill in the near future in its first reading — but on his version of the bill, ostensibly excluding suggested changes that would have delayed the process, because of Liberman’s resistance to them. All revisions, he said, would instead be incorporated before the bill’s second and third readings into law.

While shedding the objections by Yisrael Beytenu, a first vote on the bill enshrining Israel as a Jewish state in its quasi-constitutional Basic Laws would also safeguard it in the event of elections. Its passage in the first reading would allow the government to apply the so-called “rule of continuity,” which would permit a new government to pick it up for the second and third readings, without re-legislating, should the Knesset fold.

Palestinians celebrate after Palestinian prisoners end a hunger strike over their conditions in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 27, 2017. (Flash90)

Hours later, the second announcement came: The government would support Liberman’s draft bill backing the death penalty for terrorists, following a meeting of the coalition party leaders.

That very same bill was voted down by lawmakers in 2015, at Netanyahu’s orders, 94-6 (the six being Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers). Previous governments have also rejected the proposal.

Even though capital punishment is technically legal in Israel, it has only been practiced once, in 1962, when high-ranking Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for his role in orchestrating the Holocaust. The bill proposes that convicted terrorists can be sentenced to death with a simple majority of judges, rather than the unanimous decision required under current law.

Following a terror attack in July in the West Bank settlement of Halamish — in which a Palestinian stabbed to death three members of the Salomon family during their celebration at home of the birth of a grandson — Netanyahu said he supported the death penalty for the terrorist, saying it was a fitting punishment for a “base murderer.”

He had previously opposed the death penalty for terrorists. Until Sunday, the coalition had resisted attempts by Yisrael Beytenu to move the bill forward, indicating lingering reservations by the prime minister.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu had already placated his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners with an initial reading on Deri’s bill to shutter minimarkets on Shabbat — cleared last week — and a promise to advance legislation to permit Litzman to serve as a deputy minister without an overseeing minister (a setup previously rejected by Israeli courts).

As a result of the coalition deals, the Knesset next Monday is expected to pass the so-called police “recommendations” bill into law. It is set to soon present the Jewish state bill for its first reading, and the death penalty for terrorists and Litzman bills in their preliminary reading.

Along with the controversial Shabbat minimarket bill, as yet it remains unclear whether the latter three proposals will go all the way or die in committee. But in the short term, all this will give at least some of the coalition parties some perks to bring home to their constituents, likely ensuring the government gets to live another day.

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