New defense minister's death penalty demand would put Israelis at risk

The demand by incoming Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman to impose the death penalty for terrorism convictions could destroy Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and ignite a new intifada.

al-monitor Avigdor Liberman (C), head of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd R) arrive to sign a coalition deal to broaden the government's parliamentary majority, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 25, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

yehuda weinstein, terrorism, palestinian authority, idf, death penalty, capital punishment, benjamin netanyahu, avigdor liberman

May 26, 2016

One of the terms set by Israel's incoming minister of defense, Avigdor Liberman, as a precondition for joining Benjamin Netanyahu's government was that Israel impose the death penalty for people convicted of terrorism. Liberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu, raised this as a banner issue before the March 2015 elections and again, even more fervently, following the recent wave of terrorism. Its argument, which has no basis whatsoever in fact, is that such a measure is necessary to deter attacks.

Sharon Gal, a former Yisrael Beitenu Knesset member who resigned after serving only six months, actually proposed legislation on this issue. His bill failed to pass in July 2015 due to Netanyahu’s adamant opposition to it. The prime minister put all his weight into opposing the law. Among the reasons he cited was the defense establishment’s argument that imposing the death penalty could aggravate the already sensitive relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and lead to an unwelcome escalation in tensions. Netanyahu has since withdrawn his opposition. In fact, he retracted it at the start of the recent coalition negotiations with Liberman.

Meanwhile, Liberman has climbed high up a tree and turned the issue into a matter of principle. It seems that he wants to prove to his supporters, electorate and Israeli public opinion that he is interested in more than just a senior Cabinet portfolio in the Netanyahu government. He also wants to show that he has a deep concern for public safety and to establish a clear milestone for a firm Israeli policy against the Palestinians.

The return of the death penalty to the public agenda led former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to speak out for the first time since completing his tenure in January 2016. “It is impractical as a deterrent, since these are criminals who act from an ideological motive anyway and are not afraid to die,” Weinstein said in a May 19 interview with Haaretz. “Furthermore, it’s immoral.”

It is also interesting to hear the opinion of the deputy military advocate general, Col. Ilan Katz (Res.), who noted on May 22 that over the years, there have been steady government directives to avoid seeking the death penalty. He said that the legal system of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has always recommended that the death penalty for terrorism not be requested, because it could lead to an increase in attacks and incidents in which the “enemy executes our own captives.”

Among coalition opponents of the death penalty are members of Kulanu, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Without their support, there is no chance of the law being passed in the Knesset.

Actually, according to Israeli military law, the death penalty can already be imposed on people convicted of terrorism who are older than 18 years of age, but it requires unanimous agreement by a three-judge military tribunal as well as the unanimous consent of judges on the military appellate court. To date, Israeli policy has been to avoid implementing those parts of the law enabling use of the death penalty.

In the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu and Liberman agreed to amend the law so that a majority of just two military judges would be needed to approve a death sentence. The government could even change its traditional and ethical policy of avoiding any implementation of the death penalty. Under the influence of the incoming defense minister, it could ask military courts to sentence accused terrorists to death or it could foster public opinion in support of capital punishment.

“This is another one of Liberman’s crazy ideas, which could ignite everything,” Gen. Adnan al-Damiri, spokesman for the Palestinian security forces, told Al-Monitor. As of now, the PA does not believe Israel will decide to aggravate its already complex and troubled relationship with the Palestinians and the PA. Nevertheless, the Palestinian leadership continues to regard the issue as a red line that must not be crossed.

“If Israel dares to execute a single Palestinian, you can say goodbye to security coordination,” a senior Palestinian in the security services told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. If Israel executes a Palestinian and President Mahmoud Abbas continues to convey the sense that it is all business as usual, he said, “It will be the end of him, and in fact, of all of us.”

Security coordination has proven itself over the past few months, but it is not the only thing potentially at risk. The new defense minister’s demands could ignite a full-blown intifada.

The most senior ranks of the IDF — Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, Coordinator of Activities in the Territories Yoav Mordechai, and above them, the outgoing defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon — have all advocated a policy of restraint to keep the majority of the Palestinian public out of the circle of violence and intifada. This measured and thought-out policy has proved its effectiveness. Under the leadership of a reasonable and responsible defense minister, the IDF has shown that it can put the brakes on the aggressive posturing of right-wing ministers in Netanyahu’s Cabinet, particularly those who are convinced that Israel’s security problems can be resolved by following a “bang and be done with it” policy.

So, for example, during the recent war of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, instead of undertaking excessive military operations in the territories, the IDF supported granting additional work permits to Palestinians. Instead of conducting mass arrests, which would likely cause the situation to further deteriorate and drag the general Palestinian population into the rebellion, the IDF tightened security cooperation with the Palestinian security services and conducted point-specific arrests of people who met the “ticking time bomb” criterion. Carrying out just one execution, as the new defense minister is demanding, could reignite the whole region and bury the joint efforts of the Israeli and Palestinian security forces to stop the wave of terror.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the two Israeli civilians being held by Hamas in Gaza. It should be recalled that on April 16, Liberman threatened the life of Ismail Haniyeh, the most senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip. Liberman mocked Haniyeh by suggesting that he start looking for a nearby cemetery if he refused to return the bodies of fallen soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin within 48 hours of being told to do so, as well as releasing two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayyad.

The death penalty that Liberman wants to promote as a deterrent could put the lives of these two Israelis held by Hamas at risk and cause enormous damage to Israel’s security.

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