Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Death Penalty Bill passed its first reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, winning a narrow majority of 52 in favor to 49 against.
The law, which Liberman has been promoting for months, would allow military courts to impose the death penalty on terrorists by a vote of two out of three judges, instead of the current requirement of the unanimous votes of all three judges on a military tribunal. It would also extend jurisdiction over capital cases to civilian courts, and bar commutation of a death penalty pronounced in a final verdict.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave his qualified support for the bill on Wednesday, saying it should be applied in “extreme cases.”
Netanyahu cited the horrific massacre of three members of the Salomon family, Hy”d, in Halamish last July. In a visit during the shiva, he said he was “dismayed” when the relatives “who survived the terrible attack, told me how the terrorist held the knife and slaughtered and laughed.”
“And I said there are extreme cases, when people carry out terrible attacks where they don’t deserve to live,” Netanyahu said.
“We support a change in the law for these situations,” he continued, “and especially on the ability to make a decision not under the guidance of the government or the defense minister, but on the basis of the opinion of two out of three judges. This is the main change we are interested in.”
While endorsing the bill, the prime minister did, however, indicate that he would still be open to revisions:
“No one here is reckless, when you think of the very difficult and extreme things we experienced, this is required at least in a preliminary reading. Then we can consider it further at a later time.”
He added that the security cabinet will take up the matter before it proceeds to a final reading and vote in the plenum.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely declared after the vote that “the death penalty for terrorists is moral and just. The murderers who destroyed the Fogel and Salomon families are not worthy of living.”
Ministers Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and Yoav Galant, as well as the UTJ MKs, were absent from the vote.
It was a close vote, with the opposition parties against it, and the Shin Bet as well.
Former Defense Minister MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Camp) argued that the law would accomplish the opposite of its goal. “The prime minister and the defense minister are hurting Israel’s security,” he said.
“The death penalty is not a deterrent. It will only turn terrorists into heroes,” he said.
The Shin Bet reportedly warned that it could spark a wave of kidnappings by terrorists targeting Jews abroad, a concern Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman made known to Netanyahu before Wednesday’s vote.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said in a private conversation that he is not bound by the cabinet’s position — and that is just one of many considerations. Mendelblit opposed the death penalty during his tenure as chief military prosecutor, and his position has not changed, according to Haaretz on Wednesday.
Later on Wednesday, the European Union’s embassy in Israel stated its official position on capital punishment:
“The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity. It constitutes inhumane & degrading treatment, does not have any proven deterrent effect & allows judicial errors to become irreversible & fatal,” the embassy said.
In a second tweet, the EU mission said it “welcomes the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment, which has already resulted in more than two-thirds of all countries having abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.”
The EU said last year that if Turkey reinstates the death penalty, it would end negotiations for the country’s admission to the bloc. Turkey abolished it in 2004 to satisfy the EU requirement.
During the Knesset debate on Wednesday, MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List), challenged Liberman’s bill on grounds of discrimination, and queried Netanyahu as to whether he would apply the death penalty to Jewish as well as Palestinian terrorists.
“Is the case in Duma an extreme case in which you support the death penalty?” he asked, referring to the firebombing of the Dawabsheh family.
Netanyahu replied without hesitation: “In principle, yes.”
Israel has not imposed the death penalty since the execution of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962.
Updated Wednesday, January 3, 2018 at 5:37 pm