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The Knesset has decided to support a bill that makes it easier for military courts to sentence terrorists who commit murder to death in a preliminary vote on Wednesday. The bill, which is sponsored by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, still needs to pass three rounds of voting at the Knesset in order to become a law.
The Shin Bet security service voiced its objections to the bill, which it suspects will trigger a wave of kidnappings of Jews around the world to use them in negotiations.
In an unusual move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested to address the plenum before the vote to convey his full support for it.
"Some weeks ago I went to comfort the Solomon family," Netanyahu said, referring to a terror attack on a family in their home in the settlement of Halamish during a Shabbat meal, which killed three. "The family, which had survived the horrible attack, told me how the terrorist held a knife and slaughtered and laughed I said there are extreme cases of people who carry out horrifying crimes, who do not deserve to live. They should feel the full brunt of the law."
Netanyahu noted that the bill was no whim, and the question of the death penalty in extreme cases has already been examined in Israel. He said that it belongs in the category of war crimes, adding, “a person who slaughters and laughs should not spend his life behind bars but be put to death.”
Opposition lawmaker Tzipi Livni spoke out against the bill. "I have no compassion or sorrow for terrorists," she said while calling the legislation "reckless, 100 percent politics."
"The defense establishment opposes the death penalty," she said, adding that there is currently the possibility of imposing the death penalty by law, but it is not done because of the defense establishment's disagreement.
The bill narrowly passed the preliminary vote, with 52 lawmakers for it and 49 against.
The Shin Bet will be presenting its opinion to the cabinet when it convenes to discuss the bill, as Netanyahu said it would.
Present military law allows the death penalty to be handed down for murder committed as part of a terror act, but it is conditional on the unanimous support of the sentence by the judges. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who sponsored the bill, proposes that an ordinary majority of judges should suffice to sentence a terrorist to death. The bill also bans leniency after a final death sentence has been handed down.
The bill does not propose to force the military prosecutor to seek the death penalty but leaves the decision to the prosecutor’s discretion. However, it would broaden the option of sentencing terrorist murderers to death beyond the military courts, in the Israeli civil courts.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz urged ministers to resist the bill on Wednesday at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The committee, which decides whether or not the coalition will support legislation, did not get a chance to vote on it. The 2015 agreement that established Netanyahu's governing coalition – signed by Likud, headed by Netanyahu, and Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu – says that the coalition will pass a bill allowing the death penalty for terrorists.
While Steinitz objects to the bill on principle, on Wednesday he argued against it on procedural grounds. He protested that the legislation had not been brought before the ministerial committee, the security cabinet or the full cabinet for approval, and said that ministers should oppose it or skip the vote because of this.
Lieberman then insisted on submitting the legislation to the Knesset as a private bill, thus circumventing the ministerial committee.
Ahead of the bill's preliminary reading, 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 had also opposed the death penalty as chief military prosecutor, and his position has not changed.