This past Wednesday, in a rare display of near-unanimity, the Israeli Knesset rejected a bill that would have permitted the death penalty for convicted terrorists. The vote was 94-6, with only Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party—which proposed the law—in favor.
Israel does not permit capital punishment, except in cases of genocide or crimes against humanity or the Jewish people. In practice, this has made it essentially inoperative, with the only civil execution in Israeli history being Hitler’s lieutenant Adolf Eichmann in 1962.
The impetus for this latest law did not stem simply from a desire to punish terrorists. It also represented an effort to solve a thorny political problem: how to disincentivize terrorist groups like Hamas from holding Israelis hostage in exchange for the release of convicted terrorists. In recent years, most notably in the case of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Hamas and Hezbollah have successfully traded their Israeli captives—or their corpses—for hundreds of imprisoned murderers. Allowing the death penalty for these offenders was thought to be a way to prevent terrorist groups from extorting these most dangerous criminals out of Israeli jails.
Ultimately, however, Israel’s historic aversion to the death penalty—one that finds its roots in part in the Talmud, which deeply circumscribed the practice—won out: The bill was first opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then defeated in the parliament on its first reading. Instead, the Knesset formed a three-month committee to explore the possibility of changing the country’s death penalty law, which in practice is likely to stall any attempts to alter it.