Israeli Panel Balks at Deciding if Patronizing Prostitutes Is a Crime

Committee members say this is a moral question which the legislature must decide

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A prostitute on the street
A prostitute on the street. Credit: Reuters

The interministerial committee appointed to discuss the criminalization of patronizing prostitutes was unable to decide whether to indeed make that a crime, and has asked the Knesset to make the decision.

The committee, headed by Justice Ministry Director-General Emmy Palmor, completed its work over the past two weeks, and is expected to submit its report shortly to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The report does not flatly establish that patronizing prostitutes should be criminalized, with committee members saying that this was a moral question which the legislature must decide. The report thus differs from the positions presented in recent months by some of the ministries that were involved in its formulation – the Health Ministry, Labor and Social Services Ministry and the Public Security Ministry – which all unequivocally supported criminalizing the act of paying a prostitute for sex.

The committee, however, believes that criminalization should be the last resort in dealing with the prostitution industry, noting that investment should be made primarily in rehabilitating the prostitutes and educating to prevent prostitution.

The report describes at length the legal difficulties that would arise from trying to enforce such a law, if passed. The committee debated the administrative enforcement model (issuing of fines) and compared it to the criminal enforcement model (which include questioning the client, taking testimony from the prostitute and a trial), and said there would be difficulty proving the buying of sex and obtaining a conviction, because of the difficulty in proving the crime was committed (as opposed to a traffic violation, for example).

MK Aliza Lavie, Emmy Palmor, and MK Aida Touma-Suleiman at Knesset subcommittee on trafficking in women and prostitution, July 10, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The committee recommended, however, that if the legislature decides to criminalize the patronizing of prostitutes, it should be done using a full criminal procedure, not an administrative procedure, and that the legal process should involve stages of enforcement, such that charges will not be filed for the first violation.

Next week the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to discuss two bills on incriminating patrons of prostitutes: A bill sponsored by MK Zehava Galon (Meretz) and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), which would impose fines on clients, and which is backed by 71 other MKs, and a bill by MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) that would subject clients to criminal sanctions along with rehabilitation programs.

First offense, $352 fine

Under the Galon-Moalem bill, the first time a client is caught he will be fined 1,250 shekels ($352). The client will be permitted to pay only half the fine if he agrees to attend a special course aimed at preventing the use of prostitutes. A repeat offender would be fined 2,500 shekels, and anyone determined to be a chronic offender would be subject to a year’s imprisonment.

Palmor on Monday presented the committee’s position on criminalizing the purchase of sex to the Knesset subcommittee on trafficking in women and prostitution, headed by Lavie. During the hearing, Palmor explained why the committee believed that the criminal procedure was the only way to go.

“Administrative enforcement is only possible when nothing more is needed than what was seen by an inspector or policeman, like a driver riding without a seatbelt, for example,” Palmor said. “A lot of the activity related to prostitution is found in a vague area, which requires clarification through a criminal proceeding, including testimonies, recording in the police database, and so on.”

Palmor added, however, that the criminal enforcement procedure could be gradual, like fines and making clients take training courses. “The latter idea, because of the social shame and the possibility that people will know they were caught for visiting prostitutes, led to much angrier reactions than a [possible] criminal record, which is ostensibly more serious.”

Under Israeli law, prostitution itself is not a crime. But the penal code does list several crimes that are linked to prostitution, including pimping, exploiting minors for prostitution, trafficking in people to be used as prostitutes and advertising prostitution. The only crime linked directly to prostitution is the purchase of sex from a minor. The committee’s report notes that between 2013 and 2015 there were 11 indictments served for that offense, resulting in three convictions.

Amit Marari, deputy attorney general for criminal matters, told the Knesset panel that the interministerial committee was of the opinion that prostitution does damage and that those who engage in it do not really do so of their own free will. He noted that the culpability of a client who patronizes a prostitute isn’t the same as in other sex crimes.

“We aren’t talking about coercion or relations without consent,” he said. “But we are telling the client: Just know that even if you don’t see it in this case, we know that these women are acting from distress and not from choice.”

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