A debate possibly as old as Judaism itself finds itself at the top of the news agenda Thursday morning, a day after a law expanding the death penalty to some terror convictions past its first hurdle in the Knesset.
While the Torah is full of transgressions for which the death penalty is prescribed — from gathering sticks on Shabbat to saying God’s name in vain — the Talmud says in reality the punishment was rarely meted out.
And yet Israel — which has only ever executed two people judicially (one in a drumhead court martial later found to be wrong, and the other notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann) in 2018 stands on the cusp of bringing the age of execution back and the consternation over it is palpable across the press landscape.
“The IDF, the police and the Shin Bet are opposed but the death penalty law passed,” reads a main headline in Yedioth Ahronoth.
And yet there is a feeling throughout the coverage that the bill is less about making terrorists’ heads roll and more about keeping the current heads of the government in place.
Yedioth plays the coalition’s struggles in getting the bill to pass its preliminary reading as another sign of the government having trouble pushing its legislative agenda, following a vote on the mini-market law being pushed off earlier this week for lack of an guaranteed majority.
Columnist Shlomo Pyotorvosky writes that the whole shebang has little to do with hanging terrorists and is just political bluster meant to keep the coalition from being put to death, since if it actually wanted to put people to death, there’s already a law on the books in the West Bank for that.
“The author of the bill and its supporters know it won’t change a thing and no terrorist will be put to death because of it,” he writes. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke during the Knesset debate, described this well when he pointed out that the cabinet would still be discussing the proposal before it comes up for the first reading and said ‘what’s important now is the idea.’”
Haaretz’s headline focuses on the Shin Bet warning that putting terrorists to death could lead to a wave of Jews being kidnapped around the world to be used as bargaining chips for terrorists on death row.
“The Shin Bet is predicting abductions of Jews not only in Muslim countries, but in the West as well,” the paper reports.
The broadsheet also notes the coalition struggles, including quoting an unnamed source saying that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is “acting like a big baby,” in insisting the coalition has to push the legislation through.
Even right-wing Israel Hayom, the most likely of the three to back the measure, plays up arguments over the move, including dueling columns for and against the bill.
Arguing for keeping the noose untied, Amnon Lord writes that that he is horrified by Liberman’s claim that the government has to pass it as part of a intra-coalition deal, as if a matter of life and death can be decided on in such a matter (though he’s all for shooting to kill during an attack).
“At its essence, the fact that there once was justification to put terrorists to death is not relevant in our current times. It’s great if a terrorist is killed in the heat of the moment. But the moment he is caught alive, executing him as a form of punishment will cause a deterioration in all aspects of Jewish-non-Jewish relations in Israel and will cause well-known international headaches.”
On the side of the executioner, though, Hadas Mizrahi, whose husband was killed in a 2014 West Bank terror attack, argues that current punishments aren’t making anyone safer.
“Among the families of victims, especially those hurt by murderous terrorists who were freed in deals, like the Shalit deal, as in the attack in which my husband Baruch Mizrahi was killed, we understand that the current punishment, including razing homes, stopping payments to terrorists and their families — along with returning bodies of terrorists — is not enough, even ridiculous in many cases, and is certainly not creating a sufficient deterrent,” she writes.
Israel isn’t the only one threatening Palestinians, though, with US President Donald Trump sending out a tweet Wednesday on cutting off aid to the Palestinians and making Israel “pay” for taking Jerusalem off the table. Far from effecting change, though, Haaretz’s Noa Landau writes Trump’s tweet managed to further confuse the matter rather than clarify anything.
“With a few tweeted characters he managed to surprise and anger all the parties,” she writes. “The consequence of the threats, vague though they may be, is primarily to push the Palestinians further into a corner. With a mediator who calls them recalcitrant liars, they don’t have too many options other than to turn to international institutions and feel out friendlier countries in an effort to persuade them to assume the role of broker, and in time threaten to cancel all their agreements with Israel. On the other hand, after a direct clarification from Trump that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, many in Israel would also prefer that the ‘ultimate’ deal continue to exist mainly in tweets.”
Possibly showing how little stock they put into Trump’s tweets, Israel Hayom and Yedioth both give muted coverage to the threats, with the latter lumping it together with his nuclear button tweet aimed at North Korea and writing that “In honor of the new year, it seems Trump managed to outdo even himself.”
The paper treats rocket fire from Gaza more seriously, focusing together with Haaretz on the Iran-Islamic Jihad threat behind the Gaza fire.
“Unlike Hamas, which is trying to keep a lid on the rocket fire, Islamic Jihad has tens of thousands of fighters and many rockets and sends its men without hesitation. This fact will mean that Israel will take it more seriously and it’s likely the response will be harsher,” Yossi Yehoshua writes in Yedioth.
In Haaretz, Amos Harel notices that the army’s claim that Islamic Jihad was behind the fire dovetails with its attempt to tie goings on-in Gaza with grievances in Iran over funding for foreigners.
“On Tuesday, Israel’s trick was already becoming apparent. First came the announcement that Islamic Jihad was responsible for firing Iranian-made mortar shells; then, less than an hour later, came word from the Shin Bet security service that a Palestinian terrorist cell from Hebron, run by an Iranian intelligence agent from South Africa, had been uncovered and that its members had been arrested in November,” he writes. “The intelligence itself is certainly authentic, but it’s hard to believe that its disclosure now is innocent and divorced from the current context.”