The Knesset approved in a preliminary vote a bill that would make it easier for military courts to sentence terrorists to death, in a close vote of 52-49, following hours of coalition infighting on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out in favor of the initiative, saying that the death penalty is “justice in extreme situations.”
Netanyahu pointed to the massacre in Halamish in 2017, in which three members of the Salomon family were stabbed to death. He said that when he paid a condolence call to the family, Tova Salomon, who survived, described the assailant as “slaughtering and laughing.”
“I’ve seen some shocking things in my life, but I was shocked. There are extreme cases, where people commit terrible crimes and don’t deserve to live,” the prime minister argued. “We’re changing the law for these situations.”
The Yisrael Beytenu proposal, backed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, would amend the current law that allows the death penalty if it is a unanimous decision by all the judges on the panel in a military court. Should the bill become law, a terrorist could be sentenced to death if two of the three judges agree to it.
“We have a moral obligation to the people of Israel,” Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov, who proposed the bill, said. “When terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons end up going free [in prisoner exchanges], I think the most moral thing is for [terrorists] to get the death penalty.”
The bill faced challenges within the coalition throughout the day.
United Torah Judaism asked for the vote to be postponed so it can seek the advice of its rabbis. MKs from the party cited Jewish law, which sets a near-impossible standard for imposing the death penalty. Liberman, however, accused the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lawmakers of exacting payback, because Yisrael Beytenu opposes their bill limiting commerce on Shabbat.
National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz spoke out against the bill in a cabinet meeting, and pointed to a rule that either the Ministerial Committee for Legislation or the cabinet has to authorize a bill for ministers to be obligated to vote in its favor.
In response, Liberman banged on the table, pointed out that support for the death penalty for terrorists is in Yisrael Beytenu’s coalition agreement, and stormed out.
Steinitz argued that no military court would actually invoke the death penalty, and even if one did, death penalty cases automatically go to the Supreme Court, which would commute the sentence, and passing the law would only hurt Israel in the international arena.
At Netanyahu’s behest, Steinitz voted in favor of the bill in the plenum. However, UTJ MKs skipped the vote.
Since the state’s establishment, the death penalty has been carried out only twice: in a drumhead court-martial in 1948 for Meir Tobianski, who was accused of treason during the War of Independence and posthumously exonerated; and in 1962 in a civilian court for Adolf Eichmann, who was convicted of Nazi war crimes.
During the debate in the Knesset, opposition lawmakers asked more than once if the law applies to Jewish terrorists, and both Ilatov and Netanyahu answered yes. The bill does not include any language relating to religion or ethnicity.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said the only “extreme situation” the bill is responding to is Liberman’s political threats.
“This is only about political considerations. The ministers need to ask: How will this help Israeli security? Will it deter? What will it do to our Jewish brothers in Arab countries? Analyze the psychology of those who commit acts of terrorism,” Herzog said.
MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, an IDF brigadier- general in reserves, argued that capital punishment will not make Israel more secure.
“The death penalty will not contribute anything to the war on terrorism. The opposite is true. Instead of deterring, it will strengthen the terrorists, who will turn into shaheeds,” Ben-Reuven said, using the Arabic word for martyr. “Israel has proven abilities to deal with terrorism without giving up on the strength in our values and without using our enemies’ methods.”
Almagor Terror Victims Association chairman Meir Indor said the bill was “born in sin as an election spin by Liberman. The Defense Ministry [already] has the option to invoke the death penalty, but Liberman didn’t use it, so he can blame other people.
“We don’t like that he’s trying to pass this bill on the backs of victims of terrorism,” Indor said.
However, the Choosing Life forum of bereaved families, backed by right-wing organization Im Tirzu, supported the legislation.
“The purpose of this bill is to save lives,” Dvorah Gonen, mother of Danny Gonen, who was murdered by a Palestinian in 2015, said. “We cannot wait for the next murder. We need to do all in our power to prevent it.”