Grueling Debate Foreseen in Knesset on Death Penalty Issue

Yesterday’s Cabinet debate that resulted in a 7-5 vote in favor of applying the death penalty to terrorists who commit acts of extreme violence and cruelty saw the emergence of sharp differences of opinion on the subject that foreshadow another grueling debate when the matter is taken up by the Knesset. A number of ministers are known to have suggested deferring the discussion. But Premier Menachem Begin insisted that the Cabinet act now on his proposal.

Negative votes were cast by Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, Minister of Social Betterment Yisrael Katz and Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu-Hatzeira. Absorption Minister David Levy abstained.

According to Israel Radio, Weizman said he voted against applying the death penalty because the Army General Staff was not consulted on what he said was essentially a defense-related issue. Sharon argued that the move would worsen Arab Jewish relations and said he opposed “declaratory decisions that might never be carried out.” Katz was opposed on both moral and practical grounds.

Four ministers were abroad–Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Interior Minister Yosef Burg, Minister of Commerce and Industry Gideon Patt and Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai. But Cabinet sources said the outcome would have been the some were all of them present. Dayan and Burg would have voted against the death penalty and the others for it, the sources indicated.

Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir explained to reporters after the Cabinet meeting that what they had done in effect was to remove all interference by the executive branch with the “machinery of justice.” The decision whether or not to demand the death penalty in extreme cases would rest solely with the Attorney General in civil court cases and with the Judge Advocate General in military courts, Tamir said. Up to now, prosecutors have been under orders not to request capital punishment. Although it is not outlawed, it has never been applied except in the case of Adolf Eichmann.

Tamir said the Cabinet’s intention is not to apply the death penalty except in particularly barbaric cases, such as the Lod Airport massacre of 1972 and last year’s shooting rampage by terrorists on the Tel Aviv-Haifa highway. Two perpetrators of the latter were taken alive and are in jail awaiting trial as are two of the four terrorists who attacked Nahariya last Sunday. Kozo Okamoto, the only terrorist to survive the Lod outrage, is presently serving a life sentence in Israel.

NOT RETROACTIVE LEGISLATION

Tamir stressed that if the new policy is implemented it would not be “retroactive legislation,” meaning that terrorists now awaiting trial would not face the death penalty nor would Okamoto. Cabinet Secretary Arye Naor told reporters later that Begin had ruled out hanging as a form of execution because it was not “becoming” for the Jewish State to hang people. The Premier prefers shooting, Naor said.

Israel has never legislated any particular form of execution. Eichmann was hanged under the British Mandatory law that stipulates hanging by the neck until dead. Naor said the required amendments would be enacted “if and when” a terrorist is sentenced to death.

Begin injected a political note during the Cabinet debate when he disclosed what he said was a hitherto secret decision by the Cabinet of former Premier Yitzhak Rabin in February 1976. According to Begin, the Labor government decided to empower the Premier and a committee of ministers to allow military prosecutors to demand the death penalty in specific instances. Begin denounced that as “an intolerable decision” because it represented interference by the executive branch in the judicial process. It was never acted upon and, Naor told reporters yesterday, it has now been voided by the present government.

The matter was publicized apparently to show that the previous government also contemplated application of the death penalty in extreme circumstances but had gone about it in an unconstitutional way. The labor Party leadership did not react immediately to the charge. But it issued a statement last night deploring the Cabinet’s decision which it said would be ineffectual and counter-productive if implemented. Labor called for more effective measures to prevent terrorist attacks. Thus the stage was set for a heated debate in the Knesset.

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