If Convicted, You May Be Asked to Disappear

Members of the Israeli Knesset, and particularly Likud MKs, tend to show an interest in revoking judicial authority. But the amendment to the Basic Law authored by MK Gilad Erdan (together with opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu) grants far-reaching authority to the courts - primarily, the authority to decide whether MKs will be suspended from the Knesset because of convictions or whether they can continue to serve. Next week, the bill will be presented to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for any modifications before its final reading. It appears that the bill will be fully approved by the end of Wednesday's Knesset session.

According to the law as it exists today, the Knesset Committee is entitled to suspend an MK who is convicted in initial proceedings, but it is not obligated to do so. Erdan's bill stipulates that an MK convicted of a "shameful" crime will immediately be suspended and replaced by the next candidate on his party's list. In practice, the decision on whether MKs will be able to continue to serve would thus be transferred to justices, and, occasionally, to Magistrate's Court judges as well. An MK acquitted in an appeal will return to the Knesset and his replacement will step down. The objective of appointing a "substitute MK" is to preserve the representation of the MK's party and to thwart the use of convictions to destroy minority parties.

Erdan admits that he, too, is not crazy about transferring additional authority to the courts, but he believes this move is vital to restoring public faith in the Knesset. He notes that ministers and public employees are suspended as soon as an indictment is presented against them. Prime Minister Olmert's bureau chief, Shula Zaken, was suspended during investigations against her, even before a decision was made on whether to issue an indictment. Moreover, Erdan adds that the public cannot be expected to uphold laws if some of the individuals who voted on those laws are convicted criminals.

The big question is to whom the law will apply. If it applies to every convicted MK from the moment the bill takes effect it may lead to the suspension of Labor MK Haim Ramon (if the crime for which he was convicted is considered "shameful"), Shas MK Shlomo Benizri and Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi (if they are convicted and if their crimes are defined as "shameful"). Will it only apply during the next term? Only to those who are indicted after the bill is passed? Any decision the committee makes will influence the political careers of some of the most senior politicians in the Knesset. "I think it must also apply to 'active MKs,'" Arden suggests. "The public is already sick of us." Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) responds that Erdan's bill must be seen "in the framework of the rigorousness and special presence MKs take upon themselves." Ben-Sasson intends to support a transitional period before the law is enforced. In other words, it would not automatically apply on the day it takes effect. In his opinion, special rules must be formulated with regard to those who have already been indicted and convicted. As far as he is concerned, the law does not necessarily affect Ramon, Benizri and Hanegbi.

Erdan's proposal may not be the last word on the matter. MK Yitzhak Levy (National Religious Party) proposed a more exacting bill that would suspend an MK indicted for a grave crime and replace him with the next individual on the party's list. An acquitted MK will be able to return to the Knesset. Levy believes that Erdan's bill "is very well-intentioned but will not solve any problems, in practice," because he says that to date, there has only been one case in which an MK convicted of a "shameful" crime has remained an MK: Saleh Tarif. Levy is certain that "Benizri will go home if he is convicted and Tzachi Hanegbi will go home if he is convicted."

"The main problem," according to Levy, "is those who are under investigation and indicted, who slander us and undermine public trust in elected officials and the legislature." Levy insists that the message must be that "those who are indicted will not decide whether we will enter into war nor will they pass laws."

Levy insists that it is impossible to suspend every MK under investigation, but it is certainly possible to suspend those who are indicted because "they can't work in the Knesset anyway." He is willing to permit suspended MKs to draw salaries, but he adds, "another MK must work in their place." He says, "Benizri and Hanegbi have been preoccupied since they were indicted. Their thoughts are devoted to the trial." According to some Knesset sources, Haim Ramon has barely come to the Knesset since the summer.

Tzachi Hanegbi was not interested in responding, but says he did not miss a single day in the Knesset because of his trial, which has yet to begin. Benizri admits, "I do not have a 100 percent attendance, but I have not been unusually absent." He says that the only day he misses because of the trial is Tuesday, "and even then, I am updated and make up the work." It was not possible to obtain a response from Haim Ramon.

Is this a phenomenon?

On Tuesday, the Knesset Subcommittee on the Trafficking in Women, led by MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), deliberated an alarming issue: Trafficking of Israeli women abroad. A major part of deliberations was devoted to the question of whether this constitutes a phenomenon or whether it is limited to isolated cases (as the police maintain), and whether these are, indeed, cases of trafficking, or brief, voluntary trips.

The first conclusion of these deliberations was that it is very difficult for MKs to discuss isolated cases without using the term "phenomenon." Moreover, those who were present used the word "phenomenon" time and again, while emphasizing that there is no phenomenon. However, it is clear that newspaper ads occasionally appear in an effort to enlist women. Attorney Adi Willinger of the Hotline for Migrant Workers reported nine cases to the police of alleged attempts to send Israeli women to seven destinations: Ireland, England (a number of cases), Croatia, Athens, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. Hotline volunteers, who called the telephone numbers that appeared in the ads, were promised sums of money ranging from $60,000-80,000. They were also offered the opportunity to talk to women already employed as prostitutes in foreign countries and content.

The question the committee asked was whether Israel had been transformed from a target for traffickers to a nation that exports women. It was also deliberated whether intense police activity is required, or whether investment in such a force would be superfluous and alarmist. For the sake of comparison, during the peak period of trafficking foreign women in Israel, thousands of prostitutes appeared on these shores each year.

Commander Avi Davidovich, head of the Israel Police's Investigations Division in the International Investigations Unit, cited the temptation to earn fast money in a short period of time, "and a lack of awareness of the damage to emotions and health that they cause themselves during that same short period," to explain the women's motivation to answer these ads. Superintendent Shuki Balili, chief of the International Investigations Unit investigation team, says that identifiable warning signs of trafficking include confiscation of a woman's passport, demands for half her earnings and verbal violence, but he added that police have yet to encounter cases in which Israeli women were sold.

In one case, the police dispatched two undercover agents to negotiate transportation abroad - one to Canada and one to Australia. The three alleged perpetrators in this affair were arrested and indicted for attempted trafficking of women. But police are very frustrated because these are "small fry" who have yet to send a single woman abroad. Superintendent Pini Aviram of the Tel Aviv Central Unit explained: "Because these people will receive neither single-digit nor double-digit punishments, it pretty much took the wind out of our sails." Balili described another investigation into a network that sent 14 women abroad: "We investigated half of them." Representatives of women's organizations maintain that when local police first addressed the problem of trafficking of foreign women in Israel, they also tried to play down the phenomenon. Gal-On asserted that if police are aware of 14 women, there must be many more.

One of the most severe problems the Israeli police face is the refusal of destination nations, most of them in the Commonwealth of Independent States and the United Kingdom, to collaborate in these investigations. Because these women voluntarily travel to these countries, the nations involved consider their cases to be regular prostitution, which does not justify international collaboration. Canada, for example, does not permit Israelis to investigate these acts within its territory, and is also unwilling to investigate the phenomenon on its own. The Knesset Subcommittee finally decided that the Foreign Ministry must be encouraged to contact involved nations.