Israeli bully boy?

Posted: Mar 07, 2001 12:00 AM
Felix Rohatyn, the retiring ambassador to France, wrote an op-ed piece recently urging that the United States repeal its capital punishment laws. The reasons for it begin, he said, with the disgrace attached to civilized (as a diplomat, he did not use that word) nations that still do it.

A second reason is the conviction that death sentences do not keep people from doing things they ought not to do; quite the contrary, they encourage people to flame out in the same way. ("Behold how Abud vindicated his faith, and earned a firing squad. Let us unite in avenging him!") And, of course, the old reason: to sanction the clinical ending of life in an execution chamber stirs up the wrong kind of appetite in the younger generation, acclimatizing them to the culture of violence.

So what are the Israelis going to do with Avigdor Lieberman?

I cannot find that the new "national infrastructures minister" for the upcoming government of Gen. Sharon has actually championed capital punishment. It has, of course, not been used by Israel with the single exception of Adolf Eichmann, whose hanging was less an execution than a votive candle to 6 million Jews murdered. The Israelis aren't against killing people, but they don't want to do so pursuant to judicial processes. The Israelis are renowned for their ability to fix their sights on enemies of the state and to dispatch them through well-planned commando strikes.

Such activity is paramilitary in character, but we are entitled to wonder how Minister Lieberman is going to harmonize with the Israeli tradition against capital punishment. A Palestinian straps a bomb to his torso and rides a bus into a crowded neighborhood and kills men, women and children. Such terrorists are most often killed themselves in the course of the act, but not always. They are caught, tried as terrorists -- and imprisoned. There are those who are willing to opine that their lives in prison are worse than execution, but that argument can always be made. Timothy McVeigh has made it.

It was also said from time to time about Rudolf Hess, sentenced to life imprisonment at Nuremberg. After 40 years or so, there were moves to let him go -- vetoed by the Soviets; and he lingered at Spandau prison, the sole inhabitant of it, until finally he contrived to commit suicide. But people who are before sentencing judges are always relieved when they hear it said that they will be sent to prison for life, rather than that they will be hanged.

Mr. Lieberman is a very tough man. He emigrated from the Soviet Union at age 20, learned Hebrew from scratch, and is routinely characterized as the "bully boy" of Israeli politics. He worked once as a bouncer, and his career in the Knesset gives the impression that that experience proved vocational. Prime Minister Barak, who solicited his support, ended with a view of him that the upcoming government has presumably weighed. He said, "(Lieberman's) a very intelligent guy, very sophisticated, but his view of the world is very dangerous."

Lieberman responded wholeheartedly. "In the beginning I saw Barak as a brave man, one willing to take chances. Now I have reached the conclusion that he is simply insane, and every minute that he is in power threatens our existence. I was absolutely depressed when I left our meeting this week. I met with a man who was not responsible for his actions."

"If (Lieberman) has any strategic doctrine," writes Lee Hockstader of The Washington Post, "it is that Israel should dispense with the idea of 'proportionate response' and deal with any enemy provocation by pulverizing the Arabs."

And certainly, one would assume, by petitioning to establish capital punishment for terrorists. "To say there is no military solution to the conflict is really nonsense," Mr. Lieberman said most recently. "There's only one way to achieve peace -- to be strong, to be tough."

Doing what? Among other things, he is disdainful of Israeli peace activists. Arab-Israeli representatives in the Knesset meet with his open contempt. He wants them stripped of Israeli citizenship, as the Knesset's "terror department." One of these lawmakers really aroused Mr. Lieberman who said, perhaps wistfully, "In a communist country they would've put you in front of a firing squad."

That's not the way Israelis do things, not quite -- and certainly not to dissident members of the Knesset. But the assimilation of Mr. Lieberman recalls the need for rectilinear thought. If such a man is to devote himself to the infrastructure of government, surely the question of capital punishment needs to be raised. The terrible burden of Israel -- never mind the reasonable complaints of Palestinians -- is the continuing terrorism. Of the kind that should warrant capital punishment.