Israel Pulse

Liberman, politics and the death penalty

Article Summary
With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing possible criminal indictment, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has introduced legislation allowing the death penalty for terrorism convictions to strengthen his own political standing in case of elections.

Proposed legislation submitted to the Knesset Dec. 27 by Yisrael Beitenu, the party of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, would impose the death penalty for people convicted of terrorism. All six parties in the governing coalition — including center-right Kulanu, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, which in the past had expressed reservations about similar proposals — have announced their support. The Knesset is thus likely to adopt the bill within several weeks, defying the objections of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Israeli law allows military tribunals to impose the death penalty in the case of a unanimous verdict. (Such a decision has never been made.) Liberman’s draft law stipulates that a simple majority of judges would suffice, and civil courts would also be authorized to sentence to death those convicted of terrorist attacks in Israel.

A similar law was proposed in November 2015 by Yisrael Beitenu Knesset member Sharon Gal, but 94 lawmakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voted it down. Gal’s proposal, which was as populist as similar legislative initiatives in the past, was spurred by a wave of terror attacks sweeping Israel at the time. Nonetheless, a decisive majority of Knesset members accepted warnings by Israel’s security chiefs, who believed then, as they do now, that not only is the death penalty not a deterrent, but it risks turning the condemned into martyrs. It could also prompt others to avenge their deaths and turn themselves into symbols of the struggle against Israel.

At a Dec. 24 session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Nadav Argaman, the head of Shin Bet, reportedly reiterated his opposition to capital punishment. Argaman did not elaborate, but one can assume that he fears the resulting martyrdom would further fuel Palestinian violence in the West Bank. A similar position was adopted by Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, during the wave of attacks during the so-called individual intifada that began in October 2015. Former Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen expressed a similar view in a Dec. 24 radio interview. “Not only does the death penalty not deter, it could also prompt those seeking revenge to carry out attacks in Israel,” said Cohen.

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Liberman, however, is not to be deterred. He intends to push the bill through and into law regardless of the warnings by the defense officials under his authority. Representatives of bereaved families were invited to attend Yisrael Beitenu's Dec. 24 Knesset faction meeting, where the announcement was made about the bill's submission. Choosing Life, a group formed some two years ago with the support of the rightist Im Tirtzu movement, consists of some 100 families demanding that Israel adopt a “package of deterrents” to prevent future terror attacks.

“Every additional terrorist who enters Israeli prisons alive serves as an incentive to all other terrorists to kidnap Israeli citizens, to kill soldiers and then to enter negotiations [with Israel] to bargain for the release of other terrorists in prison,” Liberman told attendees at the start of the meeting. Liberman did not address arguments to the effect that every terrorist executed could also provide such an incentive. He and his fellow party lawmakers hailed the call issued Dec. 25 by the father of Ron Kokia, a soldier murdered on Nov. 30 by Khaled Abu Jaudah from the Bedouin town of Kuseifeh, for the courts to impose the death penalty on his son’s killer. For Liberman and his faction, Boaz Kokia’s call came at the perfect time.

As noted, the bill proposed two years ago by Gal was in response to public rage over the numerous attacks at the time and the desire to quash a burgeoning new intifada. That cycle of violence was eventually thwarted primarily by the wise strategy of restraint adopted by the defense forces under Eizenkot and the previous Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen. They believed that all possible measures should be taken to prevent the Palestinian public from being dragged into an all-out uprising. The security agencies therefore objected to the collective punishment of Palestinians and to unnecessary friction between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. They supported issuing permits for tens of thousands of Palestinians to work in Israel to ease the problem of massive Palestinian unemployment and resultant domestic pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA). Their policy was based on the assumption that poverty, hardship and despair were prime precursors of terrorism.

So what has made Liberman promote legislation opposed by the defense establishment at this point in time? Elections. He probably thinks that the police will soon recommend indicting Netanyahu on various charges emanating from lengthy corruption investigations, so he wants be ready with a firm and decisive agenda for his voters.

Liberman began his journey to the ballot box some two weeks ago, when he ramped up the volume on the incitement he often directs at Israel’s 20% Arab minority. In response to a demonstration by Arab Israelis in the Wadi Ara enclave in central Israel to protest US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Liberman called on Israelis to boycott Arab businesses. In a Dec. 10 radio interview, he said, “The people there have to understand that they’re not wanted here. They should be part of the Palestinian Authority and get their unemployment benefits, welfare dues and ‘idleness’ dues there.”

His comment leveraged his campaign slogan for the 2015 elections, “Ariel for Israel, Umm al-Fahm for Palestine,” meaning that West Bank settlements like the town of Ariel should be incorporated into Israel, while Israel’s Arab agglomeration should be transferred to PA control. Expelling the Israelis of Wadi Ara and adopting capital punishment for convicted terrorists constitute the “package of deterrents” with which Liberman plans to go into elections. The problem is that Israelis will be saddled with the consequences of his death penalty legislation after the elections as well.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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