Some good political news from Israel—yes, there actually is some. On the question of whether terrorists with blood on their hands should be sentenced to death, the Knesset is working like a legislature whose parties are motivated by ideas, not a slave-like commitment to a party and not by Bibi Derangement Syndrome.
The coalition has given its members the right to vote their conscience, and lo and behold, they are. The result is that a haredi coalition party is opposing the coalition’s position because they believe it contravenes Jewish law. And Yisrael Beiteinu, normally devoted above all other things to bringing down the coalition, is voting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The haredi party, United Torah Judaism, is taking a position normally associated with the left: That judges, at least today, simply don’t have the right to order the execution of another human being.
For many on the nonreligious left, the taking of human life is always wrong, no matter what heinous act was committed by the human whose life is at stake. For the UTJ Knesset members, the position is driven by the halachic principle that, since the Temple was destroyed, Jewish courts don’t have the right to order execution. The claim is that when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt, there will be such power; but until then, the Jewish people lives without sufficient connection to Heaven to be entitled to order the death of another human being. So UTJ will be voting with Labor and the other left-wing parties that always oppose the death penalty.
UTJ’s votes are being replaced by a somewhat unlikely source. Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman’s party, is on the right on many issues with two enormous exceptions: It’s fundamentally opposed to governmental support for haredi yeshivah students and their exemption from army service; and Lieberman, the party’s head, is opposed to Netanyahu’s being prime minister (or anything else in an Israeli government).
But on the issue of executing terrorists with blood on their hands, Lieberman’s party’s right-wing principles trump his antipathy to Bibi. Often in Israel, a party out of power is so eager to make the ruling coalition fall that it will vote against even legislation that its members and constituents believe in because they hope that the legislation’s failure will destabilize their political adversaries. But Yisrael Beiteinu attaches sufficient importance to the imposition of the death penalty on terrorists who’ve killed Israelis that its members will vote in support of this coalition-backed bill.
The actions of these two parties suggest what’s possible in the Knesset today on other issues: people voting their conscience—not voting to advance their own careers—yields legislative results. The issue is independent of whether one thinks the death penalty should be imposed—a result that is, at this point, still quite a ways away. And in any event, the legislation would only authorize and not require a sentencing court to order execution. Whether that will ever result in the actual carrying out of a death penalty order is a question that will take quite a long time to answer even if the legislation ultimately passes.
The willingness of these parties to vote according to their principles is a lonely beacon in Israel right now. As is clear from this video collecting their prior statements, the parties opposing judicial reform are led by people, like Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar, who have in the past made clear their belief that the Israeli Supreme Court needs to be reined in, and that democracy is offended by the current rule allowing justices to strike down any Knesset law simply because the judges think the law “unreasonable.” Yet these men are so eager to see the Netanyahu government fail and fall that they are leading demonstrations not only against the law but against any negotiation about any aspect of the law unless the coalition first surrenders. After that, these minority leaders, who lost the last election, might then deign to talk.
UTJ and Yisrael Beiteinu show the way forward. Israel has, to put it mildly, grave problems. If its leaders vote on the issues—and not on personalities or on how a vote will affect their careers—then the Knesset will wind up taking principled actions that are chosen by people giving serious thought to what is best for the country and not for themselves.
Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer and a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
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