Netanyahu green-lights death penalty for terrorists

PM reportedly tells lawmakers that opposition from the security establishment shouldn’t stall controversial bill championed by defense minister

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the IDF's West Bank Division, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, on January 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the IDF's West Bank Division, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, on January 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the go-ahead Sunday for lawmakers to advance a controversial bill calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian killers of Israeli civilians and soldiers, reportedly rejecting the advice of the security establishment.

Meeting coalition party heads to set the legislative agenda for the week, the prime minister said there was nothing preventing the proposal, which has been stalled since January, from being put to Knesset votes and becoming law.

Netanyahu told coalition heads that opposition from both the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces should not prevent lawmakers from advancing the bill, Israel Radio reported Monday morning.

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.

The bill, proposed by Yisrael Beytenu and championed by the party’s chairman, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, would allow a simple majority of two to one judges to impose the  death penalty.

Liberman said at the opening the of Knesset’s winter session last month that the passage of the bill was a condition for his party to remain in the coalition.

The prime minister’s authorization, first reported by Israel Radio, came after Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the Jewish Home party, requested that the bill be advanced, the minister’s spokesman confirmed to The Times of Israel, following accusations by Liberman that the party was holding up the legislation.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman (back) and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett (front) seen during a Knesset session on May 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Sunday, Bennett, whose religious-nationalist Jewish Home will battle with Liberman’s secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu over the votes of many hawkish Israelis in the upcoming Knesset elections, accused the defense minister of “ruining Israel’s deterrence” against Palestinian terror attacks.

Bennett was referring to a separate bill pushed by his party, proposing to transfer families of terror convicts away from their home communities and resettle then elsewhere in the West Bank as a punitive measure.

“What Liberman isn’t willing to do via the Defense Ministry, we will do today via legislation,” Bennett tweeted. “Over the last two years, Liberman ruined Israel’s deterrence. Terrorists aren’t afraid. They know their homes won’t be demolished, that their families will receive NIS 12,000 ($3,250) per month [from the Palestinian Authority] and they will be glorified as martyrs.”

He added that his party would present the bill for a vote in the Knesset plenum on Sunday, so that terrorists “will be afraid again.”

In response, Liberman’s party said it would “support any bill that aids the fight against terror.” But, he said, “that doesn’t change the fact that the Jewish Home has for about a year been thwarting the passage” of the death penalty bill.

That legislation won initial backing in a January preliminary reading in the Knesset, despite some coalition lawmakers expressing reservations over the legislation. Its progress since then has been repeatedly delayed due to opposition from the security establishment.

Following Sunday’s decision, it will now face deliberations in the Knesset’s Constitution and Law Committee before being brought to a vote in the plenary.

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