With PM’s blessing, Knesset advances bill for death penalty for terrorists

Citing case where killer ‘laughed’ as he butchered Israelis, PM says in ‘extreme’ attacks, terrorists ‘will be executed’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

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

The Knesset plenary on Wednesday advanced in its preliminary vote a bill calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian killers of Israeli civilians and soldiers, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly threw his support behind capital punishment in “extreme cases.”

The proposed legislation by the Yisrael Beytenu party cleared its initial reading with 52 lawmakers in favor, 49 opposed, after a stormy debate and a nail-biting vote, with the coalition’s majority uncertain until the very end.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism lawmakers skipped the vote to consult with their rabbinic leadership on the issue, and other prominent coalition figures, including Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, were also absent. The Haredi lawmakers were also seen as protesting the Yisrael Beytenu’s opposition to their bill to shutter minimarkets on Shabbat.

The vote was swiftly condemned by the European Union’s ambassador to Israel.

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.

Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann stands in a protective glass booth flanked by Israeli police during his trial June 22, 1961 in Jerusalem. (GPO)

It is technically allowed in cases of high treason, as well as in certain circumstances under the military law that applies within the IDF and in the West Bank, but is not implemented.

Ahead of the vote, Netanyahu told lawmakers the high-level security cabinet will hold a discussion about the controversial issue after the preliminary reading on Wednesday, and before the first reading of the bill.

In that meeting, Netanyahu said, ministers would address criticism of the proposal by Israel’s security forces.

In his remarks, Netanyahu referred to the July 21 terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, when a Palestinian terrorist stabbed to death three members of the Salomon family during a family celebration. It was during a condolence visit to the surviving relatives that Netanyahu first voiced his support for the death penalty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara console relatives of the three members of the Salomon family who were killed in a terror attack in Halamish on July 22, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The relatives, “who survived the terrible attack, told me how the terrorist held the knife and slaughtered and laughed,” said Netanyahu, adding that the description left him “dismayed.”

“And I said there are extreme cases, when people carry out horrific crimes after which they don’t deserve to live,” added the prime minister.

“Whoever butchers and laughs will not live out his days in prison but will be executed,” said Netanyahu.

The new bill would require the support of two of a panel of three judges to carry out the death sentence. Currently, the sentence must be unanimous.

The bill would apply to those convicted of fatal acts of terrorism, based on the Israeli legal definition. In light of the existing law, a Yisrael Beytenu spokesperson confirmed to The Times of Israel, the death penalty would extend to Palestinians convicted of killing IDF soldiers as well as civilians.

In the heated Knesset session, Netanyahu was asked if he supported the death penalty for Jewish terrorists, too. “In principle, yes,” Netanyahu said.

Previous Israeli governments, including those headed by Netanyahu, have rejected the death penalty bill. The Yisrael Beytenu proposal was most recently voted down by lawmakers in 2015, at Netanyahu’s orders, 94-6 (the six being Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers).

Netanyahu’s support for the bill was seen by some observers, including opposition leader Isaac Herzog, as a purely political maneuver to keep his coalition intact.

During Wednesday’s debate, Herzog accused Netanyahu of supporting the proposal this time as part of a “cynical political exercise.”

Netanyahu is “capitulating to [Yisrael Beytenu leader] Avigdor Liberman because he’s threatening to dismantle the government,” charged Herzog.

Presenting his party’s bill, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman again brushed off criticism by Israel’s security establishment against capital punishment and noted that the United States has capital punishment in 31 states.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Liberman said he does not understand the rationale behind the opposition of the Israel’s security establishment to the bill, who argue capital punishment won’t deter future terror attacks. He said the same officials stress time and again that demolishing terrorists’ houses is a deterrent.

“This rationale is hard to understand, but what can you do? It’s probably part of the intellectual stagnation we’ve been fighting for several years,” he said.

“Every terrorist who is in Israeli prison serves as an incentive to others to abduct [Israelis],” he said, referring to the practice of prisoner swaps between Israel and the Palestinians.

The defense minister also highlighted a federal Massachusetts court’s death sentence for the 2013 Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Liberman also rattled off half a dozen fatal terrorism cases in Israel where judges ruled the terrorists should be sentenced to death, but since the ruling was not unanimous, the order was not carried out.

The bill’s author, Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov, said the bill was “just” and “moral.”

He acknowledged that capital punishment exists, but blamed the attorney general for preventing its implementation. As for the reservations by Israel’s security forces on whether it would dissuade terrorists, added Ilatov, the measure “hasn’t been tested.”

MK Robert Ilatov (left) speaks with Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman during a party meeting at the Knesset (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Robert Ilatov (left) speaks with Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman during a party meeting at the Knesset (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Asked by opposition leader Herzog if he would apply the bill to cases where Jews carried out fatal terror attacks, such as the 2014 torching of East Jerusalem teenager Mohammed Abu-Khdeir, Ilatov replied: “A terrorist is a terrorist from my perspective.”

Ilatov said he would wait one to two months for the government to submit its own version of the bill. If the government does not write its own version at that point, Yisrael Beytenu will continue to advance this private bill, added Ilatov.

Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party made the death penalty for terrorists one of its central platforms in the 2015 election.

Late last year, Yisrael Beytenu said the proposal would again be advanced, after coalition leaders agreed on a draft bill.

The head of the Shin Bet internal security service last week told lawmakers he opposed the death penalty for attackers. Last Monday, Liberman acknowledged the criticism by Nadav Argaman, saying he “respects” all the leaders of Israel’s security forces, but disagrees with his stance.

The Shin Bet chief is not alone in opposing the death penalty. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also reportedly come out against capital punishment, arguing that it would not serve to dissuade terrorists from carrying out attacks, as they generally commit them with the assumption that they won’t survive.

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